Mentoring America’s Future

I bet you’ve never heard of Daniel Cameron. I hadn’t either until starting to write this blog.

But in the near future his name might become more familiar to Americans who follow politics. Perhaps he’ll be almost as familiar one day as Mitch McConnell or Bernie Sanders.

Those two high-profile senators have taken the young(er) men and women under their respective wings — and mentored them to prominence.

Thirty-four-year-old Daniel Cameron in 2019 was elected attorney general of Kentucky, home state of Senate Majority Leader McConnell, the top Republican in Congress, who wields enormous power — sometimes to the detriment of the country — in determining which bills and motions are voted on. He is the nation’s legislative gatekeeper, who has been known to slam the door shut on progress.

Despite Cameron’s youth and relative inexperience, the McConnell protege won his race easily, with 58% of the vote, becoming “the first African American to win statewide office in their own right,” according to political publication The Hill.

Cameron called McConnell, 78, “an advocate for my career,” adding that the pre-eminent power broker “bends over backwards to help those who are close to him.”

What about on the other side of the aisle — Democrats?

Everyone knows Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). As soon after she made history in 2018 as the youngest member ever elected to Congress, at 29, AOC made her presence felt as an outspoken progressive unafraid of anybody.

She quickly caught the attention of Vermont Senator and two-time presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the perennially popular Pied Piper of Progressives and a political independent (not registered with a major party). He clearly saw some of his younger self in her bold personality and ideology, standing up for the middle class, especially vulnerable populations oppressed by legislation that favors the haves over the have-nots.

ENERGIZING A NEW GENERATION
AOC is typical of the countless civil servants inspired by the 78-year-old Sanders, a colorful firebrand who has “energized a new generation of political newcomers across the country,” wrote Vermont’s VT Digger website.

When he called off his 2020 presidential campaign, she tweeted, “Thank you for your leadership, mentorship and example.”

One professor of political science likened Sen. Sanders’ inspiring leadership to that of Moses. Alluding to Sanders’ advanced age, the educator added, “but he’s not going to be the one who sees the promised land.”

That comment speaks to the flashpoint of mentoring; paying it forward to the next generation of leaders as the older generation passes the baton. The next generation of leaders needs to be properly groomed, so they are well equipped to pick up the gauntlet and carry on capably and constructively.

To their credit, McConnell and Sanders — despite being polar opposites politically — share a high regard for investing in the future, and supporting those who will be its architects.

In other areas of Congress, though, it’s less apparent how generous or far-sighted longtime legislators are in “futurizing” their own parties, let alone looking to the future of our country at large.

If you happen to lean left, it’s especially disconcerting — and humbling — to realize that Democrats arguably are more stingy in sharing their knowledge and experience with younger colleagues than are Republicans.

“Unlike the Republican leadership in the Senate, which rotates committee chairmanships,” wrote Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, “the Democrats have stuck with the seniority system.”

She goes on to say that the situation “has undermined the Democrats’ effectiveness by giving too much power to elderly and sometimes out-of-touch chairs, resulting in … too little opportunity for members in their prime.”

FORCED RETIREMENT?
The heated debate over whether there should be a retirement age for members of Congress (or at a local level, for that matter) came to a boil among Democrats with the increasingly obvious short-term memory difficulties of California Congresswoman Dianne Feinstein. Her aging process played out in full public view during nationally televised hearings.

Most awkwardly, as soon as a Silicon Valley CEO answered one of her questions, Feinstein asked the same person the exact same question, twice in a row, as if she never heard his first response.

The 87-year-old Democrat is the Senate’s oldest member. But Rep. Feinstein has a lot of competition not far behind.

With seven octogenarians currently serving in the upper chamber of the U.S. Capitol, this is reportedly the second-oldest Congress in the nation’s history.

More worrisome is that all seven of the eighty-somethings, per the Senate Historical Office, “held positions of vital importance [and some] had disruptive health problems that undermined the Senate’s ability to function”! as reported by Jane Mayer.

The age issue in Congress is so ripe that the Baby Boomers among the senators — such as 65-year-old Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — are considered youngsters!

What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty!

For one, being a Baby Boomer, I’m glad we qualify as the youngsters in Congress, but where are Gen X and Millennials?

And where is the mutual mentoring — a growing practice in business that I preach in my life, and in my ForbesBook, Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer.

Another word for mentoring is sponsorship. It’s described in Harvard Business Review as “a helping relationship in which senior, powerful people use their personal clout to talk up, advocate for, and place a more junior person in a key role.”

Tell me that doesn’t sound exactly like what our elder statesmen and women should be doing right now to bring along younger statesmen and women.

THE BUSINESS MODEL
Our political leadership would do well to take its succession cues from the world of business, where young people are respected and looked to as role models for their passion and commitment to inclusivity, diversity and equity, three of the most important bywords in America today.

It’s said that Sen. Feinstein is very tough on her staff. Nothing wrong with that if there’s a point to it.

When I was running a 20,000-employee specialty apparel chain (rue21), I could be tough on people — to help them grow and prosper in their career, wherever they might work later in life.

It’s okay to be tough, as long as you teach. Does Sen. Feinstein just issue orders, or does she train and nurture her people, one or more of whom could follow in her footsteps?

Whether it’s called mentoring or sponsoring, it works in two directions. In mutual mentoring Millennials, I teach them business, and they teach me life. It’s a perfect balance of shared knowledge where everyone benefits.

Our politicians — especially those in the upper reaches age-wise — need to get over themselves and get to work on some serious mutual mentoring.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, often called the most powerful female in the history of American government, is 80. Who is she mentoring? Which Millennial or Gen X or even Baby Boomer is mentoring her?

Actually, the Speaker is said to be mentoring a Millennial congresswoman from California — Pelosi’s home state — named Katie Hill.

Furthermore, Pelosi reportedly sponsors younger House members on a regular basis, so she gets it.

Underscoring the generational divide in terms of age, Speaker Pelosi likes to joke that she first entered Congress the year Rep. Hill was born, reported the Los Angeles Times, which also wrote that Hill has been introduced at events by Pelosi as “the next generation of Democratic leaders.”

THE POST-PELOSI ERA
It won’t be all that long before Nancy Pelosi voluntarily puts aside her Speaker’s gavel. She has vowed to call it a career no later than December 2022. That self-awareness and humility are encouraging, and should be replicated by others in Congress in her age bracket.

Clearly, we can use more Pelosi’s and Hills as the future of American leadership. That goes as well for Republicans.

With businesses being measured by the cold, hard numbers of revenue and profitability — not a lot of wiggle room in politicizing those results — it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see more people with strong business credentials run for office. They know about the value of mutual mentoring. They know how to take a strategy and execute on it, not just campaign on it.

The braintrust that runs Silicon Valley has done a fairly decent job creating shareholder wealth and building multi-billion dollar companies, as well as entire new industries.

FROM VISION TO FRUITION
The leadership is predominantly Millennials and Gen X, with a healthy helping of Baby Boomers to provide the foundational experience and the wisdom of the ages, helping take a vision to fruition.

Their mantra, which has served them well, could be adapted by young and aspiring politicians to bring us a refreshing and enlightened new era in public service: “move fast and break things.”

To fix all that’s wrong with current politics and the legislative process, the current system first has to be broken. How else to get rid of the vicious cycle of self-interest and inability to compromise that we the people end up paying for one way or another.

We need young civil servants who break the bad habits of their forbears, who persist in putting party and personal perks of power above country and the will of the people.

We are hungry for young politicians who break the counterproductive habit of name-calling. They need to stop weaponizing identity labels like socialist, radical, fascist. Using words like that to insult the other side doesn’t clarify anything. It only confuses and corrupts the conversation. It’s gutter talk better left to thugs than civilized and reasonable people.

We need the youth of our country to enter politics to break the selfish and vicious cycle of power mongering that has been perfected — in the worst way possible — by the eldest politicians, to whom we say, “Thank you for your service. Enjoy retirement. Next!”

Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer