Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Leadership in Washington - Sometimes, you can actually find it!

Author's note - this is a slightly expanded version of a 6 minute talk I gave today in the opening sesion of my year-long leadership class. The assignment was a presentation on qualities of leadership I admire in a "famous leader." Being somewhat rebellious (!) I strayed away from the famous part.

When the history of the Great Recession of 2008-? is written, there will be many individual names that are associated with it – for good and bad. Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner, George W. Bush, Barack Obama – all are sure to go down in those accounts. So too are the likes of Paul Volcker and Paul Krugman, most notably for their very public advocacy of a vastly different response then we saw from two successive Presidents.

Yet I hope that history will also add the name Elizabeth Warren to that list, for hers is the story of leadership in one of my generation’s darkest moments. Warren, a Harvard Law professor specializing in financial law, has the dubious “honor” of heading the Troubled Asset Recovery Program (or TARP) Congressional Oversight Panel. Created by Congress almost as an afterthought under significant public pressure, the Committee was expected by many to be a rubber stamp for whatever the Treasury and the Federal Reserve wanted to do to bail out the financial sector.

Ms. Warren had a radically different view: to fully implement the Committee’s chartered purpose, which is

“. . .to hold hearings, review official data, and write reports on actions taken by Treasury and financial institutions and their effect on the economy. Through regular reports, COP must:

  • Oversee Treasury’s actions
  • Assess the impact of spending to stabilize the economy
  • Evaluate market transparency,
  • Ensure effective foreclosure mitigation efforts
  • And guarantee that Treasury’s actions are in the best interest of the American people.

Lastly, Congress has instructed COP to produce a special report on regulatory reform that will analyze “the current state of the regulatory system and its effectiveness at overseeing the participants in the financial system and protecting consumers.”

To these ends, Ms. Warren and her colleagues have been busy – the nuts and bolts amount to 19 reports, 11 appearances before Congressional Committees, 18 Oversight Hearings – most in places well away from Washington, and numerous media interviews. Great you say – Ms. Warren is an unusually productive Bureaucrat who intends to leave her make by drowning the government in paper and testimony. How does that make her a leader? What is her real effectiveness?

I would ask you to consider that Ms. Warren’s leadership begins with her words. These are from the February 8, 2010 Wall Street Journal editorial which she penned:

“Banking is based on trust. The banks get our paychecks and hold our savings; they know where we spend our money and they keep it private. If we don't trust them, the whole system breaks down. Yet for years, Wall Street CEOs have thrown away customer trust like so much worthless trash.”

Or this, from the December 2009 report on TARP by the Committee she chairs:

“The evolving nature of the TARP, as well as Treasury’s failure to articulate clear goals or to provide specific measures of success for the program, make it hard to reach an overall evaluation. In its report of December 2008, the Panel called on Treasury to make both its decision-making and its actions more transparent. The Panel renews that call, as it has done with every monthly report since then.”

So Ms. Warren is being honest and forthright – as are we all on our best days. Nothing to see here you may be saying to yourself, let’s move on. But think about. When was the last time you heard a political appointee, of any political strip, speak that openly and candidly, especially about economic matters? When did someone who was “in charge” of a sector of our economy stand up and say we’re getting this wrong, and here’s why? Not thinking of anyone?

That’s because Ms. Warren is living and breathing what Michael DeRosia of the Minnesota City Management Association calls the Five Core Values of Public Administration – Transparency, Accountability, Ethics, Professionalism and Leadership. The Transparency is easy to spot – just look at the quotes above - and in my view, of higher quality then we often hear from federal agencies that have been around much longer. As to Accountability, Ms. Warren has repeatedly accepted the responsibility for her Committee’s failures, while making it clear that others (like Treasury) also bear responsibility for her not meeting expectations. Her Ethics and Professionalism are never discussed publicly, which I believes speaks to her high standards in these areas, and her Leadership is such that her oversight panel may well go down as being effective – even if it can’t get other agencies to live up to her standards.

Elizabeth Warren, academic turned bureaucrat, has set a leadership example that we can all draw from. In so doing, she has become a solid voice that Americans can listen to in a complex set of issue that threatens our Nation. Each of us would do well to aspire to her level of Transparency, Accountability, Ethics, Professionalism and Leadership.

“I've spent my time and my research on economic death and rebirth. And much of that was about what happened to America's middle class, how we have hollowed out America's middle class. It will not save us if a handful of Wall Street banks prosper and the rest of America fails. Our focus, our energy, our heart has to be on the rest of America.”


Mike at The Big Stick said...

Joe Scarborough calls her his favorite guest on his show. He thinks she is a genius - and he's probably right.

jg said...

Nice essay. Thanks for sharing.

Philip H. said...

I think she's a genius too - but more importantly she has no agenda, other then effective oversight and public service. She fully expects to go back to Harvard when the Committee's work is done. Can't say that about too many political appointees.