Experience: The Lifeblood of Leadership

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SHE DIDN’T START OUT WITH HER PRESENT position, but where she has ended up has placed her at the epicentre of the political/economic debate in America. In 1978, Congress had passed a law making it easier for individuals and companies to declare bankruptcy. It had upset Elizabeth Warren and so she, “set out to prove they were all a bunch of cheaters and that those declaring bankruptcy should be exposed, “because they were just taking advantage of the rest of us.”

She was smart, shrewd, and had research assistants to prove her case. The problem was, she was wrong. The research revealed that the vast majority of those in bankruptcy courts were from hardworking middle-class families, or from small businesses, who had their life savings wiped out. “It changed my vision,” she said. With her researchers she set about to explore what those forces were that were creating all the financial havoc. Things were convoluted at first but it wasn’t long until she came to understand that the lending and financial institutions had successfully worked themselves a sweet deal. It was this “Damascus experience,” as she called it, that redirected her life until she ended up in politics.

What most forget is that Warren is a senior, born in 1949 – a reality that saw her witness both the rise and the fall of the great American middle-class experiment. Her own personal life tracks the experiences of that journey and she not only tells it convincingly, she still bears the scars of that narrative. Her age and her intelligence are precisely what qualify her for speaking to all generations about the great economic turbulence that has turned a once stable middle-class world upside down. “If we hollow out the middle-class,” she says, “then the country we know has gone.”

It’s that language, coming from a voice of experience and poignancy, that has created enemies unlike any she has faced previously. One Republican congressman called her a liar on national television, even though the statistics proved her correct. She has also been labelled incompetent, power-hungry, ignored, and perhaps worst of all, a media whore. The over-the-top comments aren’t reserved merely for Republicans; some officials in the Obama administration have proved equally as ignorant. One member of the banking association who is one of the few members from the sector who supports her call for reform, Roger Beverage, put it plainly: “They are all blaming her for something they all swore would never happen.” Exactly. This isn’t something that merely happened to the financial industry; they helped cause it and pave the way for the fantastic earnings it would bring their elite members. Politicians on both sides of the divide have facilitated this injustice against financial equity and they jointly speak out against anyone who points out their culpability – especially a woman as eloquent and powerful as Senator Warren.

She is more than intelligent, more than courageous, and more than tough. Warren is haunted and motivated by the experience of watching as her country’s greatest asset – a remarkable and robust middle-class – is permitted to slide into despair by financial and political barons that should have known better. Nothing is more powerful than a woman or man empowered by ideals seasoned by personal experience.

Do yourself a favour and read her remarkable story and insight in A Fighting Chance. Better yet, listen to the audio version as I did (downloaded from our local public library for free). There is something about her voice that has the timber of a woman who openly admits her shortcomings but refuses to shy away from her beliefs. The first half of the book chronicles the very human story of a woman attempting to juggle so many responsibilities but who could never permit the lessons of government and financial failures to be put to the side. Warren is one of those remarkable people who fights for more than her own survival and empowerment, offering her life and experience to an entire country despite the personal cost.

Citizens will only trust those who, in turn, trust them. In 65-year old Elizabeth Warren, millions of women and men have at last encountered a politician whose experience has mirrored theirs, but whose courage to fight for all has given hope in a troubled age. In most cases, experience matters far more than opinion and she has it in abundance.  The secret to political reform lies not in the politician but in the citizen who demands the best for their family and community. In this one seminal woman comes the reminder that it’s never politics that changes citizens, but the other way around.