By Michael Kleen
What people most look for in a leader, whether he or she is in politics, sports or any other profession, is honesty, competence and a positive vision for the future.
When leaders are performing at their best, they are doing more than just getting results, they are also responding to the expectations of their constituents. When times get tough, people expect the individuals who they have placed in positions of authority to give an honest assessment of the situation, determine the root causes of the problem, and act in the best interests of everyone to solve that problem.
Good leadership depends on individuals who are first willing to take seriously the responsibility of their office. Because of a general failure on that count, we are currently experiencing a severe leadership deficit at all levels of society and government. That deficit has led to a crisis of confidence in America in which poll after poll has demonstrated that public confidence in institutions like government, banks, churches and corporations is at historic lows.
Locally, as well as statewide, voters perceive their elected officials as out-of-touch political insiders whom are more interested in pandering to special-interest groups and helping out their business partners than they are with representing their constituents.
In a recent poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois voters gave Gov. Pat Quinn (D) an approval rating of 35.5 percent. Only 14.9 percent said Illinois is headed in the right direction.
According to another recent poll, 58 percent of Illinoisans believe political corruption is common among officials in Illinois, and 81 percent say they trust state government only “some of the time” or “almost never.”
These numbers do not come as a surprise, especially after the political scandals that have rocked our state in the past several years. Just in the last primary election, state Rep. Derrick Smith, a West-Chicago Democratic lawmaker, won his race in a landslide despite having been charged by the FBI with bribery.
Here in Winnebago County, we have a county board member who is openly violating the Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act by sitting on two public boards. The solution? Not an apology or resignation, but Illinois Senate Bill 3182, which simply changes the law to allow him to continue to occupy both positions without any consequences for his actions. These are just two of many such examples.
I do not think that ethics reform, campaign finance reform, or more transparency will restore confidence, or solve the root of the problem. These reforms are a step in the right direction, perhaps, but in the end, it is the quality of elected officials that needs to change.
Because politicians are elected from within the communities they are supposed to represent, we must look deeply at the political culture of those communities. Why do we continue to elect candidates who fail to meet their basic obligations to the public? Why do we continue to allow tight-knit groups of political insiders to make decisions that affect us all?
We need to face a harsh truth: in a way, these politicians we distrust so much do represent us. They represent a public that is too lazy to get involved in the process, who is content to just let “someone else do it,” and who is more concerned about who won America’s Next Top Model than in attending a county board or city council meeting. As a result, we cannot simply look to the political process for a solution, but must start from the ground up.
Because it must come from all areas of society, the renaissance of leadership I am advocating is not necessarily political in nature. The leadership that will restore prosperity to Winnebago County (and perhaps the rest of the state as well) will arise from men and women who are willing to stand up and devote their talents, time and energy to serving their neighbors. These are parents, businessmen, pastors, teachers, administrators and other people of authority who are willing to put their personal interests aside to build a stronger, more self-reliant community.
This leadership will be more effective because it will focus on empowering institutions at the local level, while at the same time having the courage to delegate greater responsibility to individuals and family units. In other words, leaders of this caliber must act as inspirational guides, providing support for local businesses, schools and community organizations. They do not have to be perfect — they just need to shift the locus of power away from the uninspired, dishonest, short-sighted and self-centered. Only then will a group of worthwhile candidates for public office emerge.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian, and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and master’s degree in education.
From the April 18-24, 2012, issue