Tone at the Top

Tone at the top is a term of art from corporate governance, now broadly applied to the role of senior leaders in any large, complex organization. Here’s a nice summary from Boise State University’s internal controls page:

Tone at the Top’┬áis a term that is used to define management’s leadership and commitment towards openness, honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior. It is the most important component of the control environment. The tone at the top is set by all levels of management and has a trickle-down effect on all employees of the University. If the tone set by management upholds honesty, integrity and ethics, employees are more likely to uphold those same values.”

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election result, we have a live experiment in the power of this leadership principle, as stories of overt bigotry, cruelty and hate spill out of communities across the country. For complex reasons that I won’t relitigate here, we have elected as our most senior national leader a man who enacts, espouses and condones the ugliest impulses from our national past. Racism, sexism, violence and cruelty are now our national “tone from the top”, and I am sickened and disheartened to say that we have only begun to see how this leadership example plays out among the rank and file of American citizens.

We are very fortunate as citizens to have a longer-term remedy to this problem, in the form of free and fair elections. Most countries around the world have no way to solve the “bad emperor” problem, and – despite our unfortunate national choice this time around – I don’t expect us to lose that protection even in four years of grievous misgovernance.

In the meantime, we have a leadership problem on our hands, and like any company with a bad CEO, that pushes the responsibility for good governance deeper into the organization. For the last four years we had the luxury of a national leader who embodied all the principles of our unique national experiment: a black man who did all in his power to serve all Americans equally, regardless of race, religion, gender, age or income level. His leadership lightened the burden on every other leader who shared those same values.

Now it falls to us, all of us, who believe in our national experiment and wish to see it survive for another 240 years, to lead our way out of this crisis. In our words and deeds, we must now embody the values of the country we love, in service of all Americans – rich or poor, black or white, Muslim, Christian, Jew and atheist, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat. We are all immigrants here, and we will rise or fall together.