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.
Irwin Kula is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Irwin’s writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life and a co-editor of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices. Irwin has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O’Reilly Factor and PBS Frontline. Irwin also serves as President Emeritus of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.