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What Greece Needs Now Is a New Hero

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Greece is getting a lot of attention and a lot of assistance. A 110 billion Euro bailout from the IMF and European Central Bank along with lots of advice on tough tactics for resolving her economic crisis and limiting negative impact on the Euro and global economy beyond.

While many in and outside Greece debate whether all the new debt and painful restructuring is necessary, few are acknowledging what journalists like Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair and Alexis Papachelas of Ekathimerini are finally surfacing as the real problems; the Greek attachment to self-destructive behavior and their resistance to functioning as a team.

Daunting as these kinds of barriers to progress may seem, they are not unfamiliar to professional change management experts or unresolvable. But any seasoned change management consultant, especially a Greek-American one who has been noting the choices of her relatives for decades, will tell you that while all the assistance given so far may be essential -- it is still essentially insufficient.

What Greece really needs now is a new hero.

For Greece to achieve recovery and sustainable growth, Greeks will have to make profound changes in their individual behaviors. Overwhelming evidence from failed change initiatives of all sizes shows that rational, "economic" appeals to people's minds -- health reasons, business cases, structural changes to provide incentives and disincentives -- are not enough. Humans are incredibly stubborn, virtually irrational, when it comes to letting go of the devil they know, the pain they know, and their dreams, even if they are hopeless fantasies.

The real urgency, conviction, and will-power required for lasting behavior change comes from interventions that speak to the heart, not the head. And especially among the Greeks who thrive on passion and drama, nothing will get to the heart like a respected hero from their own culture bringing them back to sobriety about what is most important to them and convincing them that they are capable of making the difficult behavior changes that will build a secure future.

This is a fight that needs to be fought in the right arenas with the right interventions. The truly transformational political economy challenge isn't out there among Greek elite officials: it's in the hearts of millions of people who need to stop evading critical issues and stop evading taxes.

To understand why today's heroes can't lead positive change in Greece and the forgotten values that a new hero needs to leverage requires understanding the current dynamics and how the Greek psyche became what it is today.

As an international change management consultant and a Greek-American woman, I joyously return to Greece every summer to listen to my relatives tell their stories, and in essence the story of Greece. But this summer, rather than being greeted by the infectious carefree attitude that so many travel to Greece to enjoy, worried faces met me at the airport and I soon realized that unfortunately, what I have long predicted has become reality.

One of the reasons that Greece has been able to build tourism as a major industry is because being among warm, generous people who seem to have so much time to philosophize about life rather than actually working, helps us to relax faster than going to a place where everyone is obsessed with deadlines. And for a couple of weeks, we fantasize that if we could just adjust our attitudes, we too could spend hours in seaside cafes without negative consequences.

But in today's global economy, you can't have huge segments of the population retiring at 50 and still prosper. You can't act as if you can't be bothered to learn how to get "on-line" and expect to be anything but last in line and eventually left behind. Spending your last Euro to buy your indulged 24-year-old a BMW so that you don't lose face is not modeling responsibility or sensibility. Youth more committed to partying than education, whether by choice or by default because of limited opportunities can't create or compete for jobs, or become self-sustaining. Parents colluding in denial about what's happening to opportunities for their children eventually drive their children into a lifetime of low paying jobs or out of the country, and are in effect sponsoring the slow suicide of Greece. Is it any surprise that the Oscar nominated Greek film Dogtooth is about Greek parents misleading, mentally disabling and destroying their children?

And then there's the big one, the behavior which both the IMF and Greek government leaders agree must change, but can't make happen fast enough: corruption. Corruption, (or "non-transparent procurement practices" as the IMF says), in one form or another, via small cash filled envelopes or big ones as a way of life for almost everyone in Greece is corroding all types of foundations and infrastructures: the economy, trade, morality, and values.

This is the reality of Greece today, inspired and reinforced by an interesting pair of contemporary heroes.

In a few minutes of listening to conversation almost anywhere -- a café, an olive grove, or office building elevator -- one repeatedly, almost incessantly, hears reference to two characters who exemplify both the most respected and disrespected forms of behavior in today's Greek culture.

While partaking in a very favorite pastime -- gossiping -- Greeks punctuate the end of every story with characterization of the person as either "o malakas" or "o mangas."

Malaka is heard so frequently that after one trip to Greece my 12-year-old son thought it was a man's proper name and asked me why no Greek kids in the U.S. are named "Malaka."

Not easy, but I had to explain that malaka means someone whose efforts amount to nothing but masturbation, i.e. a jerk. I also explained that the other most frequently referenced character, "o mangas," is a sly macho man who outsmarts every one.

Relative to the state of Greek affairs today, the jerk is someone who works long hours, respects the rule of law, and pays his taxes. This behavior is seen by Greeks as letting someone take advantage of you. This is the anti-hero, the loser, the fool.

The hero is the manga. The smooth guy who has blocked others from access to a lucrative profession or valuable license, gets away with not paying taxes, who over-charges customers and never gets caught.

Assuming anyone is seriously trying to catch overcharges and tax evaders, which is not the case because perhaps the only thing that the collective Greek manga agrees about is that no one pays and no one is punished for not paying.

They also agree that no one should ever be honest about their finances lest that be seen by others as vulnerability or opportunity.

While listening to those all-telling café conversations, one notes that Greeks will talk about anything, disclose the most personal information about heartbreaks, sex lives, errors of judgment, but to honestly discuss your financial situation is taboo. Being dishonest about your financial situation with either your next door neighbor or the neighboring countries of the EU and beyond is not a morality issue; based on lessons from recent past, it's a smart survival tactic.

These are the kinds of self-defeating behaviors that make sense in the Greek head and precisely the reason that to affect change you have work through the heart.

Now whether you are a student of ancient Greece, the granddaughter of an angelic Greek grandmother, or a seasoned change consultant who knows that no effective solution to a problem can be designed without understanding its underlying historical and psychological roots, it's natural to wonder how this "uncivilized" behavior has become the norm in the cradle of western civilization.

The generation that has led Greece and raised her children for the past fifty years are people who as children themselves witnessed a brutal civil war that began even before the punishment of WWII ended.

As powerfully depicted in the novel Eleni, when people of my mother's generation were children, many of them saw their parents executed before them, listened to stories about brother betraying brother, and which trusted neighbor had inflicted the torture on the other neighbor. They weathered starvation and often fought for their own lives in a period called "ti pina," the hunger.

One of the lessons they took from this which informs the characters of malaka and manga is that the individual should only count on himself for survival. This is one of the reasons that except in sports, "teamwork" is a foreign and in-credible concept in Greece today. Even all the corruption in Greece is not run by a mafia as it is in other countries, and one reason is because a mafia is a team built on rules, interdependence, trust, respect for authority, and consequences -- all things the Greeks no longer believe in.

Along with the painful lessons of WWII and the Greek Civil War, every child in my mother's generation learned a song about how the clever Greeks studied by the light of the moon to maintain their ethnic language during 300 years of Ottoman occupation. The two national holidays celebrated by Greeks around the world are "Greek Independence Day" marking the end of Ottoman rule, and "Oxi Day," the day Greece said "No" to an Italian ultimatum during WWII.

This is a generation that has no significant accomplishment to brag about except standing up to the Germans and Italians in WWII plus basic survival, two Noble Prizes for poetry, and building a world-class New Acropolis Museum after that. Even the 2004 Olympics which were to be a return to glory are now memorialized by a haunting slew of empty buildings silently testifying again to the way that opportunistic brothers will net mega-profits at everyone else's expense -- and then arrogantly forget to pay their taxes. More humiliation contributing to moral and fiscal bankruptcy.

So as people who feel powerless frequently do, the population blames everyone but themselves for their current situation, harks back to the achievements of the ancient Greeks, and by acting carefree in the face of disaster, defensively acts out implicit superiority and privileged immunity from common standards by resting on laurels from the past. Of all the barriers to progress, this being "too cool for school" is the greatest.

What country, entity in fact, can connect and compete in the "flat world" global economy without being willing to learn and knowing how to work as a team? Greece's inability to trust, to embrace the need to learn, to sacrifice for a greater good, to credibly organize itself so that it can perform effectively and be seen as an attractive potential partner for global trade is pushing her closer to "uncivilized" and the list of "under-developed" countries by the minute.

The critical function that a new hero can perform to bring Greece back from the brink of bankruptcy is to tap and redirect the passion that drove them there. Paradoxical as the embarrassing results of their behaviors may be, what the Greeks have been trying to do since WWII is to protect their wounded pride.

Returning now to the café, if you look at who a Greek is talking to when they say "kamari mou," my pride, you will see that they are addressing either their child or someone they want to take under their wing. Greek pride is synonymous with the well-being of their children, and for their children, they will do anything.

If a new hero can link letting go of current behaviors, making sacrifices, and adopting new behaviors to securing the future for their children, change will feel like a victory rather than punishment. People will quit protesting and start channeling their passion into creating a new reality. They will regain the sense of control and genuine self-respect that is vital for sustainable development.

The new hero has to be someone people trust and respect. Someone who can make it cool to do what has been uncool. Surely this will not be a government official, a priest, or a highly successful businessperson.

One way to identify a viable candidate is to survey the man on the street asking, "Who is the most trusted person in Greece today? Who do you trust?"

Another way is to notice whose life story and perspective on life is most often featured on TV. And what Greeks do when they get sick of listening to politicians on the news. They turn the TV off, light a cigarette, and put on the voice of a singer like George Dalaras.

Over the past 40 years, George Dalaras, 61, has released over 130 albums chronicling the history, pain and joy of being Greek with love songs, folk songs, dance music, orchestral compositions from every era, Byzantine times to today, on his own and in collaboration with other international artists like Sting, Youssou'n' Dour, Paco de Lucia, Goran Bregovic, and Mikis Theodorakis, jam packing concert sites everywhere. And he is one of the world's seven UN High Committee for Refugees Goodwill Ambassadors.

In Greece today, musicians/singers like Dalaras are the truth-tellers and prophets. They are seen as the people expressing real wisdom about the realities of life. Honestly struggling with defining standards of morality and excellence through their lyrics, trying to uphold "doing the right thing," and still celebrating the unique beauty of the Greek spirit. These are the people who can call the Greeks back to consciousness, their conscience, and set them on a course to build capacity.

Get the new hero to do a media campaign where he says something like, "Pedia, (fellow youth), it's time for us to do the right thing -- for our children, their future, and the future of Greece. It's time to change our approach and give the next generation a fighting chance. Instead of protesting in the streets, let's come to the table and figure out how to make the resources and advice we are getting work best for us. Tomorrow I am going to the tax office to pay my taxes. Show your children that you love them and believe in them. Pay your taxes, expect and respect good governance, hold your neighbor and government officials accountable for the same. We can't afford to have our children becoming refugees, leaving Greece or staying in Greece doing jobs that build nothing. Without our children, there will be no Greece.... We are too good for this. Come on, get up, pay up, open up the trades, and let's get back to excellence, to creating something lasting to be proud of, and to celebrating life."

Vanessa Andris, a first generation Greek-American, is a change management and leadership development consultant for local and global organizations including the World Bank Group.