Remembering Sept. 11, 2001

Copyright Elliot Luber 2012. All rights reserved.

Copyright Elliot Luber 2012. All rights reserved.

(Based on two earlier blogs I wrote)
My family and I visited the towers with my son’s friend Dylan just weeks before they were destroyed. The photo of us standing atop Tower One was attached to my fridge that morning by a souvenir WTC magnet we had bought. A young girl in my Sunday School class lost her Dad that day. A high school friend died too, as did several firefighters and police officers who lived in town. All were exceptional people.

I was in Manhattan, but uptown. The first plane must have hit over my shoulder as I walked up Fifth Avenue. I was greeted at the elevator by the head of security, who filled me in, asking me to turn on the TV in my office. I remember my mother-in-law managed to get through on my cell phone pretty soon afterwards, and how relieved she was. I also remember hiding under the desk as we suddenly heard low-flying jets. These turned out to be American fighter jets sent to give us confidence – but we had no idea. We just heard more planes and feared the worst. Real fear.

Anyone in my building who had relatives in the World Trade Center came to watch in my office, because we had the CNN hookup. It was a scary time. It was surreal. It was suddenly life during wartime. – that’s something few Americans had experienced at domestic offices since the Civil War, outside of Pearl Harbor.

As I ran downtown again – because Newsradio88 said train service had been restored – I could see the cloud of smoke and dust I had been watching on television all morning. Dust would coat my car and house for weeks afterward. I looked back at the smoldering wreckage when the train exited the tunnel; glad to be putting distance behind me.

Then, as we arrived at Jamaica Station, a transfer point from downtown, an army of bloodied, bandaged, dusty grey ghosts entered the car. In the grey tones, they looked POWs from World War II in an old black and white newsreel. But, unlike the images I had been watching obsessively on television for four hours, this was reality. The scope of what was happening truly hit me – more so than even the worried family members I had just left.

No one wanted my seat. They were grateful to be heading home. I felt shame for being so clean in the face of what these people had endured. Then I realized how many people would not be coming that day. Looking around me, I felt that I had been truly blessed to have been spared what these people went though, but they were thinking the same thing in terms of those who didn’t get out.

That December I took my family to see Tim Curry in A Christmas Carol at the Paramount Theater. Before the show, they announced that the 9/11 families were their guests for this performance, and they stood up. God, there were so many of them! Many of us gave them a standing ovation (tears streaming down our cheeks). Others sat, strangely silent.

Some of us standing were really angry that more didn’t stand. “Come on! These are you 9/11 heroes!” Was it that typical New Yorker apathy comedians always joke about? The late David Brenner used to say that an explosion under Madison Avenue could launch a 50-pound manhole cover 100 feet into the air, and that the typical New Yorker would sit there unperturbed calling “Heads!”

I don’t think this is why people were silent. My guess is that they were experiencing the same shock I had on the train 90 days earlier. That was when 9/11 stopped being something I saw on TV, and became something I could touch. Today, I can’t look at those awful videos. My house is strangely silent this morning without the TV as it is once a year on 9/11. I guess that’s my tribute.

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Throwing ice water on your marketing program

Matt Lauer takes a cold shower on national television. (NBC Photo)

Matt Lauer takes a shower. (NBC Photo)

FIVE LESSONS FROM THE ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE:

1. Tell a simple story simply: “I have ALS and it’s bad, and I fear where it’s heading” is a really powerful message when delivered authentically on a personal level, and here yielded an equally powerful public response.

2. Social movements are about personal fulfillment and inclusion. The idea of doing something wild and crazy for a good cause puts personal “skin” in the game, and builds commitment though sharing. Challenging creativity gives it legs, but it all begins with personal courage .

3. Do your math homework: Challenging not one or two people, but three or more people makes a huge multiplicative difference in creating momentum.

4. People who snipe about ALSA’s credentials miss the point. Some people with ALS have chosen the charity, and are asking good people to follow them. The decision was made at the outset, wheels set in motion. The rest are just things jealous PR people write to calm their angry clients at other charities.

5. If there’s one thing non-profits lack, its creativity. Government funding and regulation often mire charities in a stagnant inherited culture of “doing things the way we have always done things because that’s how we’ve always done them.”  Breaking out of the box now and then can have a profound impact ($88 million and counting). I’ve lost two friends to ALS and pray for a cure. Meanwhile, many others have lost their non-profit jobs due to inertia.

 Elliot Luber teaches Leadership of Government and Non-Profit Organizations and Strategic Planning for Government and Non-Profit Organizations at SUNY Empire State College’s Center for Graduate Studies, Business, Management and Leadership Program.

The State of American Leadership, 2014

Photo courtesy of Mattel.

Photo courtesy of Mattel.

We’ve all heard the partisan screams of Democrats railing against an incompetent Congress. I’ve certainly participated in this phenomenon. And, we’ve all heard the “hue and cry” against President Barack Obama and his handling of the American Care Act or NSA spying on Americans and our allies.

Ironically, the term “hue and cry” hails from British Common Law, where the individual citizen has a legal responsibility to both speak up and attempt to assist in the apprehension of criminals on the street (Seinfeld’s final episode was based on this). Some might say Edward Snowden was doing just this by blowing the whistle on the NSA, but I digress.

Both sides of the Congressional aisle decry the concept of equal party culpability for our current condition. I won’t go there now. My point here is not to fan the already raging fires of partisanship in America. My desire here is simply to define leadership within today’s political context — one both sides might benefit to understand.

NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET

Democrats are predominantly liberal — or what leadership experts call “transformational;” They look toward change, to rebuild America so it can meet future needs much like a business visionary. Republicans, and Tea Party members in particular, are predominantly conservative — or what leadership experts call ‘transactional.” These are people focused on freezing things to focus on the short-term bottom line, meeting financial commitments like a sales manager at the end of the quarter. Republicans want to cut the debt. Democrats want to reinvent the economy.

But true leaders are BOTH transactional AND transformational. Knowing well that one must break eggs to make an omelet, transformation is a very disruptive to transactional process trying to hatch eggs. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Today our government is just barely functioning because we apparently lack the capacity to both take care of business and reinvent the way we do things. Doing both is a tough act, and this is why very few little boys grow up to become President or Speaker of the House.

Elliot Luber

Elliot Luber

There are other factors holding women back, of course. They make superior executives when given the opportunity (and when they don’t try to be like men) because they enjoy more highly developed communications skills — that passive/aggressive approach that so infuriates husbands as wives run circles around them during arguments. Yes, I generalize here.

In the first Harry Potter film (No, I didn’t read the book), Headmaster Aldus Dumbledore tells Potter: “It takes courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes far more courage to stand up to your friends.” Leadership is thus not the ability to move forward with the majority behind you, it is the ability to go back to your own supporters and convince them to go against their wishes because it is the right thing to do for practical or moral reasons. This is precisely where both parties failed us miserably to lead America in 2013.

Nelson Mandela’s crowning achievement was not giving power to Black Africans.  That would have happened on its own. It was doing so without his people murdering all the White Africans. That’s leadership. In 2013, Time Magazine chose to name the Pope as Person of the Year. He showed great leadership not in defeating those who disagree with the Church, but in moving the Church itself to re-evaluate long-held stances, its focus of energy, etc.

The Pope is relatively new in his position and hasn’t done much yet from a political perspective even if he promises to bring new spiritual meaning to the Catholic Church as Christmas approaches. In my view, naming him Man of the Year was an easier decision than awarding Edward Snowden — who did much more to make headlines in 2013, Time’s stated criteria.

Backing away from your mission shows lack of leadership on Time’s part. Leaders must do the heavy lifting. George Bush Senior won a war in Iraq, but Franklin Roosevelt got Americans here at home to go along with rationing, recycling, blackouts, and to buy war bonds. Ronald Reagan was conservative enough to bring staunch Republicans a little to the left. That just won’t happen in today’s government of, by and for special interests — where political expedience is the norm.

So what will 2014 bring? Likely more of the same, but Congress’ recent passage of a budget holds out some promise that people like John Boehner have learned something about leadership along the way. Republicans, if still mired in thick Tea, are going to have a tough time winning back the White House in 2016, but Democrats will have to learn to live with the Republican Congress, given the shrinking fringe. Which party will see the forest for the trees and take the victorious high road? We’ll see.

Thugs, murderers and other American heroes

Elliot Luber

Elliot Luber

I grew up watching television at a time when honesty and reality were unwelcome exceptions. Instead, the tube projected the America we “all” wanted. Homes and apartments were unreasonably spacious and modern. Everyone drove the latest cars, and even the African-Americans portrayed – when they were portrayed at all – were well-educated suburban Republicans. Well-employed. Well-heeled. Well-spoken. So what if they were denied opportunity in real life? At least TV expressed our societal ideals in its myopia.

“Makers of men, creators of leaders — be careful what kind of leaders you are producing here” – Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman

There was no poverty, no drugs, no dissent on TV — save an occasional performance by Elvis. Perhaps that sanitized America never existed beyond Universal Studio’s Back Lot in Hollywood where Herman Munster lived next door to Theodore Cleaver, but there was the belief we could all live like the Cleavers if we worked hard. They represented “us.”

An African-American college friend from Queens — then home to Archie Bunker and later the setting for Everyone Hates Chris — once told me that until Middle School, he had no idea he was different from Greg Brady.  Then he learned a sadder truth about racism — one television had successfully hidden from him for a dozen years — as others quickly identified him as outside the norm they saw on TV.

Enter the circus mirror

Over the last years television has left ideals behind, first becoming a mirror to inspect our carbuncles (reality TV), then one obsessed with the much darker and less comical angels of our nature. Our heroes have gone from Superman and Batman to Tony Soprano, Walter White, “GOB” Bluth, some Kentucky guy named Tickle and Wildred, the bong-smoking dog. At least we could be getting out of the Honey Boo Boo phase, though there is always a new crop of intellectual car wrecks to whistle past while channel surfing.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, our children, who do watch sanitized channels, indulge in alternate realities where they casually role-play about drug dealing, auto theft and bank holdups a la Grand Theft Auto V. So now we are evolving from a sad comical reality to a violent and depraved hyper reality – and the financial rewards of such behavior propelling the trend even deeper are astounding for the media business. GTAV passed a billion dollars in revenue — in what, three days?

From Lex Luther to Walter White

We have gone beyond a fascination with Superman’s arch nemesis to a state where we no longer need the Man of Steel himself at all. Do your children now associate more heavily with the bad guys? Are they imbued at an early age with a desire to go out in a blaze of glory while grabbing the cash and poisoning their associates?

We don’t all want to be Cleavers, but we have banished them from the block entirely. Like our political system, or a half-eaten Oreo, we have lost our center. I do get it. As a kid it was always more fun to be the bad guy when playing cops and robbers.  As songwriter Tom Waits described Las Vegas in Mr. Siegel: “Tell me, brave captain, why are the wicked so strong? How can the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves the porch light on?” But, something is lost through the constant dumbing down and criminalization of “everyday” American life on TV.

Now there are those who will quickly blame the media for school shootings and gun violence in general, and for exposing the mentally ill to bad ideas. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that, but I also think we need to keep an eye on the babysitter from time to time. Jim Carey was right in The Cable Guy for implying that too many of us are learning the facts of life by watching The Facts of Life.

 This ain’t Monopoly money

Now I know that during the Great Depression people loved playing Monopoly to take their minds off real money issues. Perhaps during an era where people feel powerless, TV shows about guns and drugs and gangs provide a similar anesthetic gratification. But we should really consider ways the media can additionally reflect positive values, ideals and heroes along with the freak shows we crave like sugary soft drinks.

The answer from Hollywood is predictable: “We tried that, but nobody watched.”

Superhero movies do still sell, but it’s the villains that seem to be stealing center stage… The Joker, not Batman. Television critics have long feared that vast cable offerings would ghettoize television, thus splintering an electorate crammed into a two-party box. Remove values from the equation and we have a mess.

More than 100 years ago Phineas T. Barnum said: “No one ever went broke underestimating the American public.” Instead, it was our democracy that broke, our children have little sense of a broader society beyond Karate classes, which sell citizenship in a videogame wrapper. Yet there are huge profits from televised depravity – be it a 24-hour news cycle distorting reality or a videogame creating an alternate reality that’s just too close to actual Los Angeles.

The only detail missing from GTAV is the Brady house. While the absent middle class sells the fantasy, it flushes our societal ideals down a virtual toilet because these middle-class values hold us together. Have we lost faith in our leaders, or have they just cashed out?