Thursday, October 5, 2006

What’s Not Working In S.D. Power Politics

The following op-ed piece by Sam Kephart, the CEO of Spearfish based Virtual Acumen Corp., was originally printed in the Rapid City Weekly and is being reprinted with his permission.


The 2006 fall election cycle is on. Press conferences are being held, signs are getting planted, political ads have begun to run and words are beginning to fly. Serious faces acting out the same partisan war dance of years past.


What’s missing?


Next time you watch your favorite candidate or listen to their message, ask yourself, am I touched, moved and inspired by this person? It’s a pretty simple and effective litmus test for real leadership ... and I’ll bet your answer is no.


South Dakota has big dreams. It wants to assume its rightful place in the global economy, it wants a living wage and affordable health care access for its residents, and it wants to stop exporting its best future — its young people. What’s slowing down or holding up this process? Quite simply stated, it’s the current power structure.


There’s a significant disconnect between our leadership’s stated agenda and what behaviors they, as a group and as individuals, are willing to change to get there. The GOB (good old boys) are alive, well, and in control. And while right-wing conservative Christian Republicans are running things in our state, my comments are not just directed at them — the Democrats appear to have similar issues within their hierarchy.


First, there is a deep fear, bordering on resentment, of newcomers to our state. Instead of being embraced for what they can intellectually and energetically contribute to advance projects important to our future, they are politely greeted and then mostly ignored, because they are “outsiders” and what they have to say is suspect.


I know several individuals with world-class educations and business credentials who have moved to the Black Hills over the last few years. They have all found it virtually impossible to get integrated into the de facto power structure-politically or business-wise.


This past July, I was quoted in a newspaper article debating the size of the Republican Party “tent.” Over the next few days, I heard from several prominent Republican officials. One told me, point blank, that “you haven’t been here long enough to offer a public opinion.” Another advised “Tsk, tsk, Sam, you just don’t understand how things work here yet.” Yet another said, “You have to start at the bottom and work your way up.”


Help me out here. Is there some time clock I neglected to punch when I relocated my family to Spearfish in January 2004? Is there some secret committee that’s the arbiter of who’s worthy and who isn’t?


Another issue with our leaders, both in politics and in business, is their lack of willingness to try genuinely new approaches to solving problems ... and to be coachable.


If you’ve got a new idea, you can usually get a meeting with them and some polite listening, but forget about quick decisions, risk taking, and pursuing out of the box possibilities. Everything is “handled” and “under control” — read “the spoils are already divvied up, why share?” and “that’s how we’ve always done this, why change now?”


The sad thing is South Dakota’s past is dictating its future.


Any farmer or rancher worth his salt knows about the dangers inherent in in-breeding. In general, hybrid crops are more productive and more resistant to disease and drought. An F1 steer (an offspring between a pure-bred Angus and a pure-bred Hereford) is generally reputed to have greater weight gain and better health.


Why can’t we apply the same openness to experiment with ideas regarding our social, political, and economic future?


We are at a crossroads in South Dakota. Great leaps forward can’t and won’t be generated by the GOB and Depression-era hangover, zero-sum thinking. Suspicion of “outsiders,” fear of unorthodox approaches to dealing with issues, resentment of those who are candid in public, and, in general, fixed ways of being, are not character traits compatible with a world class future, regardless of rhetoric or party affiliation.


In life, context is decisive. As Albert Einstein once said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” What’s our leadership pretending not to know ... and why?

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