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David Weinberger Headshot

Leadership and The Interregnum

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I hope someday an historian writes a book called The Interregnum that looks at the period between the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis had us huddled waiting for events to resolve have I had such a palpable sense of history. But now, instead of parsing every car horn as the start of a nuclear siren, I am ready for hope.

The stew of emotions is rich.

Hope itself is encompassing. It isn't even an emotion. It's a full-body experience, including cognition, anticipation, dedication, and spirit. In this case, hope is social. It's not me looking into the eyes of my Maker. It's us relying on us.

Then there's patriotism. I've always been more interested in the reasons that justify patriotism than in patriotism itself. But now I'm proud of how we are responding to this person we improbably elected.

There's fear. I want my children to have the same opportunities I've been privileged to have. That is far from guaranteed. It isn't even likely.

But The Interregnum will make for compelling reading most of all because it is the story of two people who could not be more different as people and as leaders.

Although I've been furious at President Bush for years, I had no idea I've actually been holding some back. I didn't think I had any more to give. But then George Bush began his round of farewells.

Whatever someone says s/he is is exactly what that person is not. If your boss says, "I'm all about honesty," then your boss is a liar. "For me, accountability is the main thing" means your boss is a swindler.

Bush told us he is all about compassion.

As Bush has put forward his self-explanation and justification in this past week, it's become clear how incapable he is of seeing things from someone else's point of view. With millions of refugees created in Iraq, he says his mistake was in posing in front of that "Mission Accomplished" sign. In the face of Katrina's refugees, Bush thinks his mistake was not arriving on scene for his photo opp earlier. As Jon Stewart said, "You have no idea why people are angry at you, do you?"

I don't think this is due to narcissism on Bush's part. I think it's part and parcel of his lack of intellectual curiosity. He's a tiny man on a vast stage who simply can't think past himself and what he sees at the moment. It doesn't matter how large the stage becomes, his tiny circle of light never expands.

Bush provides us with the final and perfect exemplar of how our American idea of leadership, in politics and business, has gone wrong. We've taken leadership as a personality trait. Bush thinks he's a leader because he made unpopular decisions and stuck by them. Leadership to him is a matter of character. If that's all leadership is, then we're better off without leaders -- people empty of anything except a random resolve to do something and then keep doing it.

What's missing is the idea that leaders need to be responsive to the reality of the world, the reality of the conflicting needs of the led, and the reality of suffering. Leaders may sometimes need to draw a clear line, but they must always recognize that the simplicity some decisions require masks an awful and continuing complexity.

In the interregnum, Bush has revealed himself as a buffoon blind to the tragedy he has hosted, while Obama has been showing us what leadership is about by bringing us to what is best in ourselves -- as individuals, and, most of all, together.

I am ready for release from the shame and anger of the Bush years. I am so ready for the interregnum to end.