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Quit Whinging and Queue Up

July 18, 2009

In a recent post, I discussed the surprising popularity and sad-but-true salience of a British war-time propaganda poster that reads: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” I’ve also written about Wall Street Journal reporter Elizabeth Bernstein’s observations concerning people trying to outdo one another around the water-cooler with their tales of woe and complaint. If the poster and related artifacts bearing its slogan have become so suddenly sought after, why then are so many people apparently failing to heed its advice?

A crisis occurs when those considered responsible for an emergency — an unexpected and unwanted source of harm or anxiety for one individual or small group — fails to accept responsibility for and take actions to restore confidence by responding to if not completely resolving the source of the original disturbance or harm. In other words, if removing or resolving the technical aspects of the problem do not do the trick, as is often the case with wicked issues, then leaders must acknowledge the cause and help people adapt to the new circumstances.

When leaders convey the “keep calm and carry on” message in a way people receive or interpret as being more like “quit whinging and queue up,” they invite disaster. This may help explain why, despite some encouraging economic signs, people have not responded more enthusiastically or robustly to the president’s stimulus package and other supposed economic remedies.

Many people find themselves not only suddenly and unexpectedly unemployed, but also cannot foresee prospects of anymeaningful employment returning — particularly in their chosen field — for the foreseeable future. Lines are not only forming, but getting longer almost everywhere you look, with the notable exception of the sales queue. As susch, people have little choice but to join the unemployment queue or the retraining queue or the underemployment queue.

As I noted in another post, expecting President Obama to accept full responsibility for a crisis not of his making is as unreasonable as it would be ineffective in restoring confidence. By the same token, actions he and others, including Congress and the Federal Reserve, take in response to the ongoing economic emergency should recognize the importance of holding people accountable for their share of the responsibility for causing it.

So far, the examples of individual accountability, such as the de facto life sentence meted out to fraudulent financier Bernard Madoff, have been both few and far between.  Likewise, they have failed to include what we once referred to as the unindicted co-conspirators, which today include the policymakers and regulators who failed to act despite abundant evidence of malfeasance.

The current crisis cannot end and future emergencies of a similar sort cannot be prevented until and unless responsibility and accountability for errors and omissions become better aligned and assume a more meaningful form. The recovery depends upon reconciliation, which in turn requires evidence of genuine remorse, a commitment to repentance, and, where appropriate, the payment of penance.

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