A Tale of Two Leadership Styles 3-2-05
Date: Wed, 02
Mar 2005 11:51:25 -0800
Huffington : arianna@ariannaonline, now at the huffingtonpost.com
A TALE OF TWO LEADERSHIP STYLES
After seeing the young Bruce Springsteen in concert, rock critic
Jon Landau famously wrote: 'I have seen
the future of rock and roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.'
Well, I've just had a Springsteen moment. After spending some
time last week with Andy Stern, the
groundbreaking president of the Service Employees International
Union, I'm ready to declare: I have
seen the future of progressive leadership in America, and its
name is Andy Stern.
You'll forgive me if I temporarily trade my critic's platform
for a cheerleader's megaphone, but I've spent
the better part of my adult life obsessing over the dwarfish
nature of modern political leadership. (I even
wrote an entire book about it in my mid-20s, and watched while
it was rejected by 36 publishers before it
finally saw the light of day.) So when I see the real deal,
I react like a starving woman being escorted to
an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Now, I suspected that Stern was the real deal even before I met
him, having followed his fight to pull the
American labor movement out of its decades-long death spiral.
But what indisputably come across in
person are his fire and passion for the 1.8 million janitors,
nurses, social workers, security guards and
home health-care aides he represents--and, by extension, for
all working Americans.
When he talks about their lives and their struggle to provide
for their families, he so clearly connects with
their plight that he invests it with an urgency sorely lacking
in our contemporary political discourse. What
Stern wants to do is nothing less than create a vibrant 21st-century
labor movement, which he considers
'America's best anti-poverty program'; turn the tide against
the Wal-Martization of our economy; and,
while he's at it, help save the Democratic Party.
So how is he doing it? For starters, with a leadership style
that is bold, innovative and fearless--and that
has recently landed him on the covers of both Business Week
and the New York Times Magazine. It was
in full display this week as leaders of the AFL-CIO met in Las
Vegas to debate labor's future. Like all
transformational leaders, Stern knows that the real battle begins
not with your enemies but with those on
your side of the fence. To this end, Stern has issued an ultimatum
to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney:
Implement a slate of specific reforms that, in Stern's words,
would 'build something stronger that really
changes workers' lives' or he and his members will leave and
continue the process they started on their
Bold actions like this have not exactly endeared Stern to his
fellow union leaders--a fact that doesn't
seem to trouble him a bit. As my compatriot Pericles used to
say, 'Courage is the knowledge of what is
not to be feared.' Stern's courage has been very hard-earned,
the result of the tragic loss of his
14-year-old daughter, Cassie, who died in his arms just over
two years ago, following what was
supposed to be a routine operation. The experience devastated
him--but also galvanized his resolve.
'Things you think you are scared of become insignificant,' he
told me. 'It suddenly hits you: Why am I so
afraid to say what I really think?'
And so that's exactly what he does, shaking things up with his
reform-or-else threat to break up the
AFL-CIO; with a campaign to bring Wal-Mart to its knees; and
with his pledge to 'pay back' politicians,
'no matter who they are or what party they come from ... who looked
us in the eye and said they were for
us--but then went out and betrayed us.'
But Stern is far more than just a fearless fighter; he is also
a brilliant and innovative thinker and
strategist. 'To lead is to choose,' he says, 'and it is unacceptable
in these extraordinary times to ignore
the choices facing us. I want the SEIU to be the leading political
force in our country that moves our
leaders to face the difficult choices.'
Compare that with the pale rhetoric and feeble resistance being
offered by Democratic leaders in
Washington these days. Sure, they've landed some heavy blows
playing defense on the president's
proposal to overhaul Social Security. But is this the only issue
they are able to wrap their minds around?
Are they just too exhausted to use their political muscle and
imagination for anything else--including
what should be the great political debate of our time, Iraq
and the war on terror?
The latest Zogby poll shows that even in the aftermath of the
post-Iraq election euphoria, just 39 percent
of Americans think the war has been worth the lives lost fighting
it. And Monday's 120-plus death toll (the
bloodiest single attack since the war began) will only drive
that number lower. But all we're hearing from
Democratic leaders on Iraq are sentiments like those expressed
by Hillary Clinton, who returned from
her most recent trip sounding like, well, President Bush, explaining
that suicide bombers are 'an
indication' of the 'failure' of the insurgency, and that much
of Iraq is 'functioning quite well.' She must
have been visiting downtown Potemkin Village, where they take
all U.S. dignitaries. Or maybe the
Halliburton courtesy tent in the Green Zone.
President Bush keeps giving Democrats opening after opening on
national security--including porous
ports, insufficiently protected nuclear and chemical plants,
and diminished numbers of first
responders--yet all they can do is brood over whether they should
follow Hillary's Zell Miller
impersonation and embrace their inner red stater.
Figuring out how to talk about God and morality is all well and
good, but the Democrats will never return
to power until they can figure out how to take the national
security cudgel out of the GOP's hands--while
developing an economic message that, in Stern's words, 'appeals
to workers, not to entrepreneurs,
venture capitalists and intellectuals.' (But, as Stern pointed
out to me, when John Kerry was accepting
his party's nomination, sitting in the seat of honor in his
box, right next to Teresa, was Bob Rubin, not
anyone representing America's working class.)
Which is why, along with working to remake the future of American
labor, Stern is working hard and
spending lavishly to help remake the Democratic Party. SEIU
donated an astounding $65 million in 2004
to organizations such as America Coming Together, Mi Familia
Vota, Voting Is Power and the New
Democratic Network. That kind of money should get you more than
a seat at the table; you should be
picking the freakin' menu.
Unions and Democrats go back a long way, but Stern feels that
many of the problems dogging the labor
movement are also dogging the Party: complacency, timidity,
an inability to adapt to a changing world. So
while continuing his fight for the soul of the labor movement,
Stern is also working to push for a new,
more progressive, more worker-oriented economic agenda. 'The
Democratic message is not strong
enough,' he says. 'If there's going to be a viable progressive
movement, its main goal has to be to
change the lives of people who go to work every day. Democrats
need to ask, 'Are we addressing their
concerns? Do they have health care? Do they have a secure retirement?
Can their kids go to college?'
This is the core test for America. And right now, we're failing
'My responsibility,' Stern told me, 'is to be a voice for 1.8
million people who don't have a voice on their
own, and to help them improve their lives. When leaders start
thinking it's about their own lives, that's
when they lose their purpose.'
Andy Stern was well on the way to being Andy Stern even before
his daughter's tragic death. But it took
that cruel experience to convince him that it was time to put
aside his fear, take the leap of
leadership--and let the chips fall where they may. What is it
going to take for Democrats to do the same?
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