Chris Christie: A Failure of Leadership

Governor Christie has committed trafficide. As fast as he rocketed to presidential hopeful, he has fallen to being “compared” to Tony Soprano. All I know is what I have read in the papers. Two of Christie’s aides have been fired for shutting down lanes of the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York and is the busiest bridge in the world.

For four days, thousands of commuters were terribly delayed in order to create a shutdown of the roads leading to the bridge in the town of Fort Lee?- all as an act of political vengeance against the mayor of Fort Lee for not supporting Christie in the recent gubernatorial election. I do realize that as political vengeance goes, Christie and his aides ought to be applauded for their restraint?- if it was North Korea, rather than having his main streets blocked by traffic,?this small town mayor would have been thrown off the George Washington Bridge. But what interests me is what we can learn from Christie’s apology.

Christie’s apology – which he uncharacteristically read from a prepared text – started out quite well. He was direct in apologizing to the people of New Jersey, Fort Lee and the legislature. There was no ‘I am sorry if I’ or I am sorry but’, he assumed responsibility as the governor for the actions of people who worked for him. He held people under him accountable by firing them – including one of his close friends. He promised the investigation would continue and assured this would never happen again. But the apology of a leader/a person with power requires more than assigning blame and holding people accountable and it is here where Christie’s comments may actually show why such an action could have happened under him.

Christie was appropriately subdued, “stunned, disappointed, and humiliated” though he claimed he had not yet “gotten to the angry stage” (hardly believable given what we know about Christie). But when a reporter inquired, “what do you ask yourself about?” in light of all this, the essence of Christie’s character was revealed. Christie responded that he was heartbroken and then the moment of truth: “It makes me ask about me what did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?” He went on to talk about how he was “sad” at having been “betrayed” by close aides who had broken their “circle of trust’ and he concluded, “I am soul searching on this.”

Off script Christie was telling us what was in his heart: he saw this as an issue of friendship, loyalty, and trust. This was about the character of those who served him and betrayed him. He was at the center of the story. He was the victim. It apparently never occurred to him to reflect, “What did I do wrong to have these folks think it was okay to screw the public for a petty vendetta?” He barely mentioned the people who had actually suffered from the intentionally-created massive traffic jam. Christie believed that the genuineness of his apology and sorrow was demonstrated by firing people whose primary transgression was betraying his trust.

But Christie sorely misunderstands the responsibility powerful leaders have – to always be asking about the culture they create in which people operate.? Christie needed to ask not what he did to make people lie to him but what he did to contribute to creating an environment in which those who knew him best, were most loyal to him, and wanted his approval could act with such callousness, pettiness, sarcasm, and vendetta. Clearly they thought acting this way was something Christie would like whether he approved or not. Christie claimed he took complete responsibility but “responsibility for what?” is the question.? Genuine leaders take responsibility not only for firing people but for the cultures they create that often contribute to people doing wrong. This is true for CEO’s of companies and parents of families, principals of schools and political leaders. Christie failed this test. He has power but he is not a leader.

4 thoughts on “Chris Christie: A Failure of Leadership”

  1. Michael, your comment highlights such a central tension for all politicians and I guess all public people dedicated to building a better society: the tension between the I and the We. To constantly be putting oneself out, selling one’s ideas, convincing people, trying to change things takes ambition and a serious sense of self i.e.ego that can easily lead one to forget that what we are doing is in service to the mission and therefore means and end are tied together. It takes a big I to lead a We and always remembering it is about the We isn’t so easy. I actually have compassion for Christie and think and hope he is going to learn from this…as I guess we who are in public leadership roles all should. Thanks for calling attention to this challenge….

  2. Kol Hakavod. For all that Christie made headlines with his honesty and candor during the hurricane, he has made decisions which have adversely affected too many citizens of New Jersey. He has been an independent operator who calls too much attention to himself and not
    enough attention to his communal mission…

  3. Arthur’s comment is important. We are now in a moment that is so polarized that when someone makes a “beautifully written” piece critiquing someone from one party the immediate reaction from smart and good people is but what about a critique of someone from the other political party. Perhaps the only way we will begin to build bridges is by doing just that…as I received a dozen or so private emails very similar to Arthur…though only Arthur put his as a comment for which I am very grateful. I want to e clear that my critique of Christie was really a comment about leadership and how one responsibility of leadership – amongst many responsibilities- is to understand they create the culture in which the people who work for them function and therefore send out implicit messages about what is right and wrong. This is different than simply having people who screw up and are incompetent which I think is the case with many of the President’s failures. Each of the failures you mention- and they are failures- are different some having very little to do with the President, some being politically driven, and some related to serious policy divisions. If I was to write a version of my Christie critique of the President it wouldn’t be about policy as my critique of Christie was not about policy rather it would be this: No president in my life has ever come into office proclaiming a commitment to transparency (and bi-partisanship) more than this President. And it may well be that no President has wound up having less bi-partisanship and less transparency than this President. This is a significant leadership failure…the culture that the President created no matter how fairly or unfairly those who opposed him acted has not been bi-partisan and has not been transparent. This has sadly eroded trust in government. New Jersey politics has a long tradition of being bully hard nosed vendetta filled…Christie is merely a traditional New Jersey politician in this sense – sad because I actually think he is a really interesting politician who can be a bi-partisan leader. But our President needed to do much much better in asking himself what he did to create a culture of polarization and non-transparency. Thanks Arthur for challenging me to critique “my side”. I wonder what it would be like if every time we critiqued the side we disagree with we also critiqued “our side”. What would your critique be of your political side? Thanks for reading….Warmly,

  4. Thank you Irwin. It’s a beautifully written piece and a strong indictment against the New Jersey governor. I am just wondering whether I missed a similar indictment against President Obama that would be entitled “A COLOSSAL failure of leadership”.

    Between the Obamacare rollout (speak about wasted hours on the part of taxpayers), the IRS debacle, Benghazi, the NSA scandal, Fast and Furious, and his epic mismanagement of the wars, you may have to write an entire series about his serial failures of leadership.

    I look forward to the sequel.

    Kol Tuv,
    Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky
    Phoenix, AZ

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