THE BLOG
02/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Privilege or General Population ... From Which Come the Best Leaders?

There are generally two schools of thought on the subject, or so I've found myself. Some people say, 'It doesn't matter where a President or Dictator is from - or how they've been raised: it all comes down to character.' On the other hand, there is the viewpoint that leaders breed leaders, or better said, 'Where you are from is who you will become.' History may have shown us some staunch examples of both aforementioned, but it has also shown us many shades of grey.

The contrast of our current active President's background is a stark contrast to President-Elect Obama's. Sure, they both went to college. I'm sure they share love for a few similar things: perhaps sports, outdoor activities, family time, etc. The bloodlines, however, don't both lead back to the same place. George W. comes from a wealthy, prominent family, where his father was a President, his brother is a Governor and although he might have been an unexpected choice within the family, it certainly isn't surprising that someone from that family might occupy the White House, given the history and pedigree. Barack Obama is obviously not from any family anyone in Wall Street, the White House or the Saudi Arabian Royal Family has ever heard of. He is about as average as an American can be: he has a mixed racial heritage; he is a child of from a fatherless family; his mother died of cancer; he had to rely on scholarships and loans to get through the uphill climb of college tuition. It's not every day that we have a leader who has entered an upper-class, Ivy League course of life and made it straight to the top without a pad of privilege giving him a goodnight sleep throughout his journey.

I must draw parallels to my own experience. I was raised in Massachusetts, where everything makes sense. My parents are both college graduates with Bachelors degrees in areas they chose and ended up working in. They came from solid, blue-collar families that were structured and raised me in like fashion. Dinner was at 6 every night; we had stimulating dinner conversation about current events and family; I always had health insurance and saw a doctor if I was sick; homework came first, then I could play. This is a stability I took largely for granted: wasn't everybody's life like mine? Things got a bit hectic when the recession of '89 hit and my brother and sister were born within a two year period. It put a financial strain on my father (who lost his job as a Surveying Engineer) and a noose around my artistic mother's neck. My college fund was gone. But there was still dinner at 6, stimulating conversation, homework and health insurance. Having that stability gave me courage to pursue a wildly unconventional path: I've lived, worked and gone to college in Puerto Rico, New York City and Los Angeles.

Hitting financial rock bottom is tough; truly not having enough the money to eat a steak when you're feeling weary. Truly not having enough monthly income to have health insurance for years at a time while you pay your way through college -- it's tiring, no longer a 'fun' challenge. It's hard to regroup in life when all you have time to think about is the ten steps in front of you: food, shelter and basic necessities.

What it might have been like to never know the foundation I had became apparent to me during the three years I waited tables and lived in NYC. I met a population of people in the service industry that I'd never really known before -- and realized there was a whole breed of people who didn't have a mommy and daddy and dinner at 6. These weren't people who came from houses with white picket fences and parents who helped them with their homework. Most of my new friends grew up in apartments, were from other countries -- Haiti, Peru, Vietnam and Senegal -- had single parents and were always trying to pay off some sort of bills. They managed their money wisely and were the most independent people I'd ever met. They relied on nobody except themselves and they answered to nobody except themselves. They were a pleasure to work with, always did their side work cleaning thoroughly and very rarely complained unless there was a serious problem. They couldn't afford to be reckless or get into trouble.

Then there was a girl; we'll call her J. Well, there were definitely a few of her 'type.' J was from the Upper East Side. She was working on her last year at Columbia and her lawyer-parents had encouraged her to get a job -- any job. She'd never worked a day in her life. She wore a chronograph Bulgari watch (while waiting tables) and her hair was thick and full like mine was during high school (My hair had since thinned out during stressful weeks, combating finals and full-time schedules.). She worked breezy Tuesday lunches and a single Thursday night. I worked the hardest, money-making shifts: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, with a Sunday brunch to drive the nail into the coffin of my weekend. Monday morning I hit my classes that would continue all week. I forgot what it was like to go out and party. I was 23 and exhausted; my nails were inexcusable; I dropped about ten pounds and lost some more hair; I didn't sweat the small stuff anymore. As I worked alongside her, I grew to resent J; the way she came in on Thursdays filled with happiness and energy, ready to start her shift. It was all a game to her. She exhausted easily and brought food to wrong tables regularly -- not that it bothered her.

So, what's my point? Was I simply a bitter girl? Maybe, but it was my own personal eye-opening experience about the actuality of how people are shaped by their personal circumstance.

It's very simple. Of course there are exceptions, but on a whole, it might be stated that there's a different approach and earnestness behind decisions and governing tactics when you have had a real fear of having a tablecloth whipped out from under you at any moment. You prioritize differently, repercussions for the disadvantaged are real to you, you tend to work more dutifully, and are often times forced to budget and manage effectively all the time, not just when you actually decide to roll up your sleeves for a few hours a day for show. Often times the people who are moody or grumbling are that way because they are on their 15th hour of a workday. The man in the nice, shiny suit who is always cheerful isn't worried about the bottom line or if the company falls apart -- he knows he's going to be okay. The bottom falling out from under him simply isn't an option.

Think back to college... Was there not a difference in some of your 'study groups' between those who were paying their way, tending bar on weekends and those who were going home to visit the family on the weekends?

Now think about the fundamental disposition of the person who sits in the Oval Office. When proposals come across the desk for health care, wouldn't it be plausible to state that a President who has had health care unarguably all his life might be a little less inclined to stand up to the Insurance Conglomerates than a man who watched his mother die of cancer, all the while worrying about what costs would be covered at the end of her days? It always strikes me as odd that the Republican party, an insanely class-divided party, sails past this traditionally true paradigm of leaders they elect and leaders they choose to discredit. What I mean is, if the Republicans are divided into two groups, the Palin people (gun-toting, backwoods conservatives who work for Ford) and the Cheney people (still gun-toting, conservatives with family ties to million-dollar corporations, the White House and the wealthiest 1%), how is it that the Cheney people are able to successfully discredit hardworking leaders so easily (e.g., Clinton, trying to link Obama with the word 'elitist' simply because he speaks intelligently) and the Palin people are so painfully unaware of who the Republicans are putting in the Oval Office. How on earth does a Joe-six pack conservative who works at the local Chrysler plant and has a wife who works at Wal-Mart (both right now who would have terrible health insurance benefits at this point in the economy) rather elect someone like George Bush than Al Gore? How is that even something they would consider? Could it be that they know nothing about the character and background of each candidate? That would be scary; that would mean more than 50% of the US don't do their homework.

Or perhaps it's because there is still a large number of voters who elect an administration on a single policy issue (e.g., Abortion, Gay Marriage). So they'd rather have someone in charge of them who will vote for higher health care costs and generic-only medication, but they don't mind that, because, at least if Susie down the street gets pregnant, she can't have abortion by any means. Preposterous. The other voters say, 'I'd rather let the nation go to all hell, but make sure I get a bit of a tax cut from my wealthy President.' A harsh sentiment, but in a nutshell, true and concise.

Let's be honest: how many of us feel sorry for those swindled by Madoff? Those people didn't do their homework because they knew, for the most part, for their sizeable returns, something was not totally right, but because it was in their own little wealthy circle, it simply had never been a requirement. Full disclosure and the actual fact-checking wasn't something that group felt they had to do. Or wanted to. Or needed to. There's a downside to joining a club called the Entitled Group, and it's that you start to gradually give a percentage of yourself into the Invincible Group, where you have so many tablecloths on your table, the idea of them being whisked out from under you becomes less of a concern. You can even stand to lose one or two tablecloths, so you stop paying attention. And the truth is, that 'entitled' disposition is exactly what makes largely intelligent people look the other way on investments such as Madoff (and then bites them in the behind). It is the beginning of the end for Presidents and leaders, where the entitlement starts to corrupt them and disconnect them from the masses of the people (think Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro). They become the kinds of leaders who are not FOR the people or OF the people -even though it might have even started out that way, but, now, with this grand entitlement, are ABOVE the people.

So at the end of the day, who do you want your leader to be? From what cut of cloth? Maybe it's more important to ask ourselves what kind of people WE are, since we elect them over here (kind of). Do we want to see our economy genuinely grow, managed by someone who has been in the trenches and knows how to prioritize like the Founding Fathers did? Or are we apt to elect someone who will hoard their friends' dollars, giving government contracts to their friends' corporations, and screwing the populous of the nation? Well, that's been tried for eight long years... and now, as this economy shows, when you do that long enough, the wealthy lose too. And this time, they've forced democracy down their own throats!