Monday, November 19, 2012

Serving, or being served?

It's about time someone said it:
“There is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgment,” (former Secretary of Defense) Gates said last week.

Power, fame, influence, wealth -- all of these have within them the potential to overwhelm even a well-grounded character.  It's said that the ancient Romans used to have someone accompany returning generals during their triumph parade, whose only purpose was to whisper constantly in the hero's ear "remember, thou are but mortal."

There is little about being a national leader in the U.S. today that provides such a warning.  High-level civilian and military officials alike are whisked from place to place in portable bubbles consisting of armored vehicles, expansive motorcades, tricked-out aircraft, and jet-set accommodations.  Such conspicuous trappings used to be socially unacceptable in our public servants -- a sign they thought too highly of themselves. 

The ultimate check against this sort of thing is to vote politicians out of office -- the "who do you think you are" rebuke.  Alas, with incumbents winning reelection at better than a 98% rate, that's not really a deterrent anymore. Nor are senior military leaders deterred when a finding of misuse of resources results in a 'demotion' to three stars and a pension still well in excess of $200,000 a year.  We will not get better results until we demand them from those who allegedly work for us.

There are (and have been) serious accountability issues growing at the top tiers of our armed forces.  This isn't surprising, since a general rot has spread throughout our culture.  A president can perjure himself and remain in office.  Congressmen can go AWOL when under investigation.  Financial insiders can twist markets to their illegal advantage, and barely register a slap on the wrist.  With the growing sense the climate is "grab what you can with both hands," it's no wonder public trust and confidence in our nation's institutions are shredding before our eyes.

Those seeking personal advancement and the trappings of status should pursue it in the private sector.  We need servant leaders in public office -- those who ask only enough to accomplish their task, and respect for a job well done.  Beyond that lies vanity, ambition, and danger.

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