The Leaders Notebook

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The Futility of Outrage

March 30th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Great Questions, Playing a Bigger Game

Anyone else getting tired of outrage? Given the penchant of the fourth estate for using every opportunity to focus on challenges of the corporate community (perceived or real- as long as it sells), it is not surprising to see the amount of outrage expreesed by shareholders, politicians – especially politicians – and of course, the public at large. Anger is not an inappropriate response to malfeasance and the abuse of fiduciary trust. But it is also convenient, safe and pretty much unproductive.

I listened to more news than I cared to today and heard politician and pundit alike express their disapproval, their indignation and yes, their outrage. But where were their suggestions? It is very convenient to point a finger of blame at someone with whom you take issue. It is another thing altogether to offer a suggestion for dealing with the issues at hand. The few who seem to offer opposing opinions most often sound more invested in the opposition than the opinion. After all, no one, regardless of how certain they are, truly knows what strategy will be successful. So, when a pundit spends his three minutes of fame on a national news program, I am surprised to see it squandered on finger pointing.  Have  look at the sample below for a great (sad?) example.

A single instance would only be a rant- but I went 5 for 5 in yesterday’s news shows.  Lots of finger pointing- not one suggestion which was not cloaked in denigration. 

I am as unhappy as anyone about the state of my investment accounts. I do not believe that we should be awarding large compensation packages or severance to those whose leadership was insufficient or even damaging to the performance of their organization. And I certainly do not think that we should just forgive and forget when it comes to those who simply cheat the system. But outrage has very limited uses.

Outrage can make us feel better. If we feel cheated, it can be a fulfilling emotional release to vent our spleen. But overdone, it can also turn us into victims, both in our own mind and in that of the public. And in the larger picture, very few of us are victims. That is the other use for outrage. if I am busy pointing a finger of blame, I do not have to take accountability for my own part in the problem. it is amazing how many of the “victims” of Madhoff’s Ponzi scheme were not diversified and are now wiped out because they placed all of their resource in one single basket. Very few of those whose investment portfolios made sizable gains due to financial stocks that were overpriced based on what we now call toxic assets complained about the gains. And what about those of us who bought houses we could not afford based on easier terms? While there are a few “masters of the universe” in financial markets who made a lot of money without adding value to the markets or anyone’s lives, pretty much all of us fed at the trough that created this mess, either directly or indirectly.

So, when the best and brightest get on TV or write in the national press, I am more interested in their ideas for a way forward than in their pointing a finger of blame or tossing their own constituency red meat to foment the battle. If we start from understanding that it is OUR problem, one that WE had a hand in creating (either directly or indirectly) and that NONE of us understands for certain the impact of our actions, all that is left is constructive dialog and debate.

Effective leaders understand that the best resource they have for tough decisions is debate. All sides, discussed and supported with data and dedication allow the real issues to be surfaced so that a decision can be made and monitored. So, can we give the outrage a rest for a while and focus on reasoned debate?  In the spirit if my own suggestion, here is my request to politicians, pundits, analysts and anyone else with an opinion and a bully pulpit.  Instead of pointing a finger at what you think is wrong and condemning either directly or with sarcasm, focus on what you think we should do, and why.  Rather than tell us how current decisions or practices will bring the end of the world and trying to scare us OUT of something, give us facts and an argument FOR something.

By all means, root out and deal with dysfunction, deceit and fraud. But let’s do it on the altar of dealing with the issue rather than that of vengence.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Bruce Ervin Wood, PCC, SPHR

    As a poet, I wondered about the derivation of the word “outrage.” “Rage” would seem to have enough energy on its own to convey this emotional state. Why add “out?”

    Does prefacing rage with “out” mean that if two people feel rage that one ‘out’ rages the other? Is this a competition? If so, who would the outraged seek to impress?
    Perhaps, when our anger causes us to lose center and to discharge the energy, we need to let our rage “out.” A release. Unfortunately, recent studies show that catharsis, rather than quelling anger, causes anger to build.

    Maybe, when show outrage, we’re putting our rage out for all to see. As if saying, “This terrible situation is so not ‘me.’ Perhaps, more accurately, this external situation hits too close to causing me to own what I would prefer not to admit about my self. These expressions of righteousness are opportunities to learn about self. We generate a great deal of energy trying to hide our shadows. Maybe what we really feel is “inrage.”

  • Tom Swift

    Barry:

    I could not agree with you more. Civil discourse and reasoned debate seem to be in painfully short supply. Did you ever watch the firing line debates, hosted by William F. Buckley? The best minds on the right and on the left in a tough competition of ideas. Somehow accomplished without screaming.

    Presumably, the conclusion is that anger and vengeance is the more normal human behavior, and reasoned discourse the exception. What was that you kept telling me about the amygdala?

    Regards,