Obama’s “new ethic of responsibility”

I ran outside this morning. And it was cold — but better than yesterday when I had to navigate unplowed streets heavy with four inches or so of snow. So today was better than yesterday — although not perfect. I was thinking about that this morning because I’m convinced that things are going to improve in this country in the months ahead. Here’s a reason why. Barack Obama said on Meet the Press yesterday that as the next president he hopes to introduce a new ethic of responsibility.

We sure need that — along with leaders — in government and business — that can inspire confidence and maintain trust and credibility. We’ve lost that as a nation. We have to get it back.

Here’s the context. Tom Brokaw asked Obama whether the current management of the Detroit automakers should be allowed to stay in their jobs.

You can watch Meet the Press segment on the MSNBC website, but here are some key points to Obama’s reply.

  • “What I think we have to put an end to is the head-in-the-sand approach to the auto industry that has been prevalent for decades now.”
  • “I think, in fairness, you have seen some progress made incrementally in many of these companies.”
  • “What we haven’t see is a sense of urgency and the willingness to make tough decisions.”

Then to the key point:

  • “And part of what I’m hoping to introduce as the next president is a new ethic of responsibility where we say that, if you’re laying off workers, the least you can do, when you’re making $25 million a year, is give up some of your compensation and some of your bonuses. Figure out ways in which workers maybe have to take a haircut, but they can still keep their health care and they can still stay in their homes. That kind of notion of shared benefits and burdens is something that I think has been lost for too long, and it’s something that I’d like to see restored.”

If he can accomplish that — we’ll be a better country. There has to be shared responsibility. And it has to start at the top of organizations — with ethical leadership.

Obama’s remarks also provide some context for the current debate about the auto industry bailout. One of the remaining hurdles to the government writing a check for billions is the question of whether management should be replaced. It’s the Tom Brokaw question — only it’s being asked by Senator Christopher Dodd and a host of others. Here’s from an article in The Washington Post:

As part of that restructuring, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford could be asked to jettison their top executives, one of the chief architects of the plan, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), said yesterday. Stating bluntly that “GM is in the worst shape” of the three auto giants, Dodd said that GM chairman G. Richard Wagoner Jr., the company’s chief since 2000, “has to move on.”

“You have got to consider new leadership,” Dodd said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “If you’re going to really restructure this, you have got to bring in a new team to do this.”

I have no idea, none of us do really, whether Wagoner is an effective leader and manager. It’s possible that he — and the other Captains of Industry at Ford and Chrysler — are victims of market forces beyond thier control. But if that is the case, then the sucking sound we are about to hear is billions going down the rat hole.

Oh well.  At least Wagoner has the strong endorsement of one of GM’s PR guys.

Reacting to Dodd’s suggestion to oust Wagoner, GM spokesman Steve Harris said “the employees, dealers, suppliers and the GM board of directors feels strongly that Rick Wagoner is the right guy and best guy to lead us through these tough times.”

Ah, Steve. I’m sure that’s true of the GM board. They’ve been riding along with Wagoner as he has slammed the company into the bankruptcy wall. The others — employees, particularly — well, not so sure.

How about some responsibility here? And if the bailout really hinges on whether Wagoner stays or goes –well, what’s the right thing to do.

Call it the “new ethic of responsibility.”

If you’re interested in watching the Meet the Press interview, you’ll have to look at it on the MSNBC website. For some reason it has been removed from YouTube. Probably more important for the future of the country for people to be looking at dancing bears or something equivalent.

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