Talkers and Doers – an exposé on “The Washington Disease”

We will get out of these hard times – and, once out, we will recognize it was the Doers that made it happen.  The longer I live, work and travel in and around Washington DC the more I am convinced that it is a city of Talkers. Yes, there are hard-working, sturdy doers here by the thousands, and our republic depends on them. God bless ‘em! But it is the talkers in DC who have the limelight. Blinded by their own brilliance, they rumble about the town like tumbleweed. I bump into them often – thus my rant.

I remember, as a much younger man, spending some time with an elder in our church who was a farmer. He didn’t say much. But I have seldom been so impressed at how much one person could get done in life. And it was solid. I would float my lofty ideas by him, and his wise words were often: “We’ll see.” We did.

Here in DC it is not just The Administration, Congress and the Media that clobber us with lofty talkers. They are everywhere, at all levels and in most organizations. Oratory is in vogue.  It is so pervasive that I have named it The Washington Disease. You see it in business, with gusts of “my-idea-is-the-most-significant-idea”  blowing down corridors and swirling around meetings. You see it in schools with the teacher asking the class for their feedback and then cutting off the discussion because the teacher thought of something more important to say.  You see it in the frenetic pace from the beltway to the National Mall to the suburbs – as a friend of mine puts it:  “Everyone’s in a hurry even if they don’t know where they are going.”

Where does it come from? People feel the need to get something DONE – but they are trained here to TALK. It is easy to talk. Talk is cheap. Meetings are easy to schedule in Outlook. We get to talk a lot in meetings. Makes us feel better. Gets us through the day. Makes us look even better if we rush. It is easy to rush – hey, I am an adrenaline junkie too – it feels good.

How about really getting things done?  That costs us more. As my dad, who grew up on a farm,  would say: “Time to put your money where your mouth is.” (Note to Congress and the Administration – the proverb cites YOUR money – not someone else’s).  It boils own to DOING something. That usually involves more work than talking. A great deal more. Doing things makes you miss meetings.

A big part of the problem here in the DC area is that people are too tired out from the talking and the rushing to move down from the 10,000 foot level and get their hands in the dirt like a farmer and make something grow. Besides, there is not much social value here in being a farmer. Doers don’t get much credit. My theory – it is too provincial.  Seems too much like it comes from the heartland or a red state. I digress.

Now THAT gets me back to some of my recurring themes: Politics – Business – Spirituality – Life – What’s good for America – and stuff like that.

Here is the summary:

  • Politics: I think America is really tiring of DC talkers. Recent elections seem to bear that out.
  • Business: It is still about the small-businessperson, the small business family, and the American worker who likes the feeling of being captain of his or her own ship.
  • Spirituality: The Bible says it is not the hearer of the Word but the Doer of the Word that is blessed…  (I think that also goes for the talker-about-the-Word)
  • Life and What’s good for America: It finally boils down to the regular American people who go about doing and helping their neighbors and making their small communities work. It is about volunteers and parents and kids and teachers and preachers and singers and diggers. It is about farmers with hands in the dirt. I would MUCH rather listen to the few words they have time to say than the over-caffeinated cacophony I hear in and around our nation’s capital.

I am about over that.

Elitism – in business – in life

If you have been reading these posts so far, you probably have figured out that I am anti-elitist. That does not mean I don’t believe in leadership – to the contrary – I do.

That is what entrepreneurship is all about. The real leaders rise to the top. In business, in politics, and in life. What I am ‘anti-‘ is the idea of presuming that a certain class – or a certain ‘club’ – has a lock on leadership because it is privileged.

In politics, I am actually a federalist. That is because, while I do agree with the premise of James Surowieci’s The Wisdom of Crowds – the idea that the mass of society, taken as a whole and on a level playing field, is smarter than the experts (or the elites) – I do believe that those who arise to actually do the work of leading are a smaller group – hence federalism. However, I believe that those leaders should come out ‘wherever’ – not out of the pre-established circles that tradition has vetted.

More about politics in another post.

Let’s talk about business. Let’s also talk about the media (of which I am one). Let’s talk about life in general.

There is a curious crowd dynamic in societies which viewed from a distance looks hilarious. I think it is a dynamic best observed in an American High School. I call it the “Reindeer Games.” Remember poor Rudolf? They used to laugh and call him names. They wouldn’t let him join in their ‘reindeer games.’ It didn’t matter that they would someday desperately need him to guide the sleigh. It didn’t matter that he was more open than they, more receptive to new ideas, and more innovative. What mattered was that he was not like them.

That is the dynamic. There is a huge tendency in groups towards conformity and towards the development of an establishment ‘elite’ which protects that conformity. What is worse is that this attitude is not openly discussed much – it is assumed. If you do not join with the group in the (group) assumptions, well, you were either not cool, stupid, a throw-back, or something else unwanted by the group.

Come on – you remember high school?

What then develops is a certain power in the hands of the elites – who work with the group and convince the group of two things: 1) That the group really needs them (the elites) – and “…if you play it right, someday you too may be cool!” 2) That the elite really deserve to be the elite.

Let’s apply this to business. Have you run into any conformist clubs in the business world? Do you have any problems bringing your ideas to market sitting around a table of the super-cool ‘elite?’

Let’s apply it to media. Have any in the media gotten the idea that by some curious twist of fate, they can interpret better, understand better, explain better or frame an issue better than someone not in the media? Even more – do you ever have the feeling that the media tries to preserve a certain may of looking at things and a conformity to a worldview that may not be the worldview of many of the people they are speaking with?

Let’s talk about life. Do you have the urge to be a leader yourself? Do you feel you have things to say but are afraid to say them, thinking they either will not be heard or will be ridiculed? Do you feel trapped in a way of life that you would really rather change, but feel the tide is against you?

That is what I am talking about. I do not blame it on any group – elitism happens naturally – it is a tenant of human nature. But true leaders always have to strive against it, and seek out true and the real values in life in an environment of rabid conformity.

Surowieci begins his book with the story of the British scientist Francis Galton. Galton was an elitist. He believed “…that only a very few people had the characteristics necessary to keep societies healthy” (from the book’s introduction). He was also a famous geneticist. He believed these vital leadership traits were genetically coded and passed down through generations. Hence – he supported the British aristocracy – an ‘elite’ if there ever was one. He set about to prove his assumptions – with statistics – and measuring the inaccuracies in the knowledge set of a crowd of people.

He found out something, statistically.

He was dead wrong.

I’ll post a lot more on this book in the next post – semi-daily now :-)