Viewpoint -- Labels, Paul Wellstone's Life And CEO Leadership

Dec. 21, 2004
Real reform requires executives to become passionate advocates.

Inevitably, the media reports, the obituaries, and the appreciations of Paul D. Wellstone, the Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota who died in a plane crash on Oct. 25, referred to him as a liberal. Some suggested that he was the Senate's most liberal liberal. In 1990, Mother Jones magazine welcomed his upset election to the Senate against Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz with the words that Wellstone was "the first '60s radical elected to the U.S. Senate." In more recent years, as the Republican Party has become more conservative and the Democratic Party has moved more into the middle ground between liberal and conservative, there was a sense in Washington that Wellstone, whom the Washington Post described as "an unapologetic liberal" in its obituary, was increasingly politically isolated, that the new alignment of partisan politics was marginalizing the '60s radical. There is a major problem with such labels as liberal, or conservative or even middle ground -- particularly in Paul Wellstone's case. They do not even begin to describe the person, the human being on whom the label is being placed. "Liberal" Paul Wellstone worked with "conservative" Pete Domenici, a Republican senator from New Mexico, to secure insurance coverage for mental illness. "Liberal" Paul Wellstone worked with "conservative" senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, on human rights legislation. "Despite the marked contrast between Paul's and my views on matters of government and politics, he was my friend and I was his," said Jesse Helms, the "conservative" Republican senior senator from North Carolina, who did not seek re-election this year. Integrity was one of the characteristics that Domenici, Brownback and Helms saw in Wellstone, even -- or perhaps one should say particularly -- when Wellstone was in dissent. One of the first votes Wellstone cast in the Senate was against the Gulf War. One of his final Senate votes was against a resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to use force in Iraq. "Some may have found his persistent and passionate advocacy grating at times, but it was honest, dependable and valuable," said a "Washington Post" editorial that appeared the day after Wellstone died. This is a time for persistent and passionate advocacy that is honest, dependable and valuable, not only on Capitol Hill but in corporate offices as well. Paul Wellstone did not so much march to a different drummer as he was a different drummer. With his words and his actions he tried to sound a special cadence. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. and recent corporate scandals, far more CEOs than have been heard from so far need to be putting their special cadences to the work of reform. CEOs need to be doing more than focusing on the security of their supply chains and the integrity of their financial statements -- even as important as those tasks are. Jeffrey E. Garten, dean of Yale University's School of Management, writes with eloquence and urgency in "The Politics of Fortune," (2002, Harvard Business School Press) about the need to develop a new leadership model for a new world. Asserts Garten, "Depending upon the full ramifications of the response to terrorism and the Enron-Andersen debacle . . . these two milestones could shake our faith in the viability of an open society of the kind that Americans have known -- a society in which ideas flow freely; civil liberties and privacy are protected; markets are free to generate products, services and wealth; and government intrusion is kept to the bare minimum." The challenges are great, Garten says, and among them are thinking about security in economic as well as military terms and about understanding that there are fewer borders between domestic and international problems. "For business leaders in particular, the new paradigm of leadership must go beyond pleasing Wall Street and delivering ever higher profits on a quarterly basis," he insists. "Besides considering all the stakeholders of a company -- employees, customers, suppliers, communities -- business leaders must also consider the concerns of society, such as a cleaner environment and a higher level of integrity in business dealings," states Garten. The call to reform is being sounded. The issue now is whether or not CEOs will respond with persistent and passionate advocacy that is honest, dependable and valuable. John S. McClenahen is an IW senior editor. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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