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How Bad Leadership Destroys Trust and Hope

June 9, 2019

This is an updated post from 2012, re-inspired from a two week train trip in May 2019 to New York City and Washington, D.C.

Sometimes it takes a totally unplanned encounter to have the light bulb go off in your head. My light bulb went off during a car trip with my wife, Sue, from our home in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, to her mom who lives in the maritime province of New Brunswick. 

We decided to drive through the U.S., a country we both love. We toured through beautiful Vermont and New Hampshire, and took a break upon entering western Maine in the pretty town of Rumford, across the river from the small town of Mexico. Both of these industrial small towns have long histories, and in the past two decades have been hit very hard by the loss of jobs to China, other Asian countries, and the country of Mexico. The 2008-09 Great Recession creamed the local economy.

While in Rumford’s tiny but cosy tourist bureau, we struck up a conversation with the gentleman who ran it. In his sixties, he had travelled Canada coast to coast. His favourite story was his 16 snowmobile trips to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula. However, he startled me when he stated twice how much he loved Canada and that it was a better country than the United States.

Fast forward to the next day when we were in the coastal town of Bucksport, Maine. Over breakfast, we had fun talking to an elderly man, retired from running a restaurant in Old Orchard Beach, and a couple our age who had lived all over the U.S., not to mention Japan.

Again, I was surprised when similar sentiments were expressed as the previous day in Rumford.

Sue and I have heard Americans express how fortunate we Canadians are. Back in May 2008, we took a 6,000 mile train trip across America. That trip occurred on the cusp of the financial meltdown and subsequent Great Recession. We heard many Americans state how disgusted they were with their government, not just national but state level. When a typical Canadian hears such stories the reaction is typical smugness and gloating– give it to the Americans!

Sorry, but I vehemently disagree with those who express this view. First, do not confuse the corruption and self-interest that pervades the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., or the mindlessly naïve and selfish attitudes of politicians seeking candidate nominations. Americans, as a people, are generous to a fault, hard-working, and honest.

Canadians?

Decent folks, but a little pious, self-centered, and generally lazy. Our national pastime is crapping on Americans to build up our self-esteem.

Is Canada better than the United States, as the gentleman in Rumford so directly stated?

Absolutely not.

I’m sure that if you asked a Dane if Canada was better than Denmark, or an Australian the same question, you’d be laughed at.

What got me thinking during our trip through New England was, “What’s going on here? Why are such wonderful people feeling so beaten up that they’ve lost their pride for their country?”

It’s about leadership, a non-quantifiable, invisible force that inspires hope, courage, empowerment, change and improvement in peoples’ lives. At the level of a country, it affects the lives of millions.

But what about organizations? That was part of my light bulb moment.

Whether you’re a public servant for a federal, provincial, state or municipal government, or an employee in the private or non-profit sector, losing hope for the future has catastrophic consequences at the organizational level. Productivity and performance plummet; customer and client service go in the tank; and the organization’s future may be in serious jeopardy.

We live in an increasingly inter-connected world. Government may decide to downsize, ban unions, outsource work to the private sector, including offshoring work to India, for example. Companies nuke their workforces for the next quarterly results to appease shareholders, forgetting that these actions often lead to eventual collapse. The corporate graveyard is littered with examples.

The race to the lowest common denominator when it comes to production cost, customer service, and product quality has yet to end. This has an impact on people. If you, as an employee, perceive that management is fixated on the bottom line, that customers are simply a metric and that the corporate vision is in reality to make shareholders happy, then why should you give a crap–especially when people are treated like disposable commodities?

As a long-time practicing economist, retired federal public servant, and father of four adult kids and seven grand kids, I fear for Canada’s long-term future. Americans don’t have the monopoly on bad national leadership. It abounds. Look at the European Union for stellar examples of incompetence.

So where does this leave us?

What can be done to change the mindsets of the folks I met in Maine?

How about Americans, coast-to-coast?

What needs to be done to inspire hope and engagement for employees in organizations–private and public?

We all need to get involved and reach across whatever divide that separates us. The clock is ticking. Time is running out.

I want to close with a wonderful poem from a memorial I saw while walking along the waterfront in Bucksport. Take a moment to reflect on its meaning and significance. We all would benefit to take periodic pauses during our personal life journeys to think about from where we’ve come, where we’re at, and how we may improve our collective wellbeing.


Sunrise at Fort Knox (by Frank “Don” Hayden Dunbar)

(Written during W.W. II from the shore of Buckshore, Maine)

At the beginning of the River
Where the Island meets the tide.
It whirls in crazy eddies
Where the seagulls love to ride.

As there I stood that morning.
I gazed at what I saw
That peace that God had given us,
Here, there was no war.

It was daylight in the morning
The snow had fallen anew;
It made the ground just solid white
The sky was solid blue.

I looked one hour later,
I gazed across the docks,
And 13 stripes and 48 stars
Waved proudly o’re Fort Knox.

I watch them every morning
That flag and the sky so blue.
The sun will rise forever
And I know the flag will too.

Dedicated to the memory of Frank Dunbar and Kathleen Leach Dunbar.
Loving mother and father.

Photos: Maine sunrise; Penobscot Narrows Bridge & Observatry (Bucksport)

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