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October 2006
A Disturbing Absence of Business and Economic Leadership
By John Paul Galles

What disturbs me most about our current economic environment is the absence of significant economic and business leadership. At a recent meeting of the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club, I had the opportunity to hear Geoffrey Colvin, editorial director of Fortune magazine and formerly co-anchor of Wall Street Week on public television. As one of the pre-eminent business journalists, I took the opportunity to ask him to identify business or economic leaders that have a vision for the future of American business opportunities. He circumvented the question, concluding that there were many good thinkers and that the wisest course of action was to read or listen to several and to draw our own conclusions. Clearly, he could not or chose not to name one!

In the past, we might have named Peter Drucker, Michael Porter, Tom Peters, Philip Kotler, Jack Welch, Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, Bill Gates or Rosabeth Moss Kantor. Yet, now, in the maelstrom of debate and focus on the War on Terrorism and the War in Iraq, we have little time for discussion about the state of our economy and we are paying far too little attention to domestic and economic issues that confront our nation.

The recent and dramatic declines of General Motors and Ford are overwhelming evidence that our economic future is in jeopardy. Even our Charlotte regional economy has witnessed the demise of the textile industry, furniture manufacturing, and tobacco growth over the past decade. While global competition plays an immense role in forcing change within our economy, Mr. Colvin stated “We are getting what we asked for. Our current economy is the direct result of the policy we adopted…free trade policies, but we are also experiencing the impact of economic growth in many more nations around the world that have adopted democracy and capitalism within their own countries.”

In last month’s issue, Erskine Bowles referenced a recent economic study by a collection of diverse business leaders entitled Rising above the Gathering Storm, that called for a renewed emphasis on education to prepare generations into the future for the competition they will face from more aggressive educational systems in many foreign countries that continually outperform students and schools in the U.S. Where is that same energy within our nation that awakened to compete with Russia in the race to the moon? Improving our school systems is certainly an important step towards improving our competitive position, but we must assemble a national movement that forges a cooperative and disciplined approach to educating students and helping them achieve their potential to keep America competitive. That is a longer term strategy.

In the meantime, even the politicians have been absent from the discussion of the economy. While they continue their concern that we are secure and safe as a nation, they must also come to grips with the internal trauma that is reconstituting our economic base. There is little doubt that Toyota will eventually become the number one automaker in the U.S. Politicians certainly have been quick to take credit for job creation in rising economies. They also know how to lay blame on others when jobs are lost. But there is virtually no political debate regarding the future of keeping jobs in the U.S., let alone a discussion of pension reform and health care financing as they impact our already higher-than-elsewhere wage levels.

Throughout our history, what has always been a significant advantage within the United States is our culture supporting and encouraging entrepreneurialism. American inventiveness and ingenuity have consistently contributed to our competitive advantage.

What is lacking is business and economic leadership! We need an articulated vision that provides a clear direction and a set of objectives that can be targeted by American entrepreneurs. Absent that vision, our economy flounders and falls further behind. Businesses must adapt and evolve with the changing economic environment. The discourse begins with each of us.

John Paul Galles is the publisher of Greater Charlotte Biz.
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