A Time to Lead

Out of hard and tragic times emerge great leaders, as we’ve seen over and over in this nation’s history. A few have already stepped forward in the current crisis. More will do so.

Happily, we are a nation where leadership emerges not just from generals and presidents, but from the institutions that form the fabric of our nation, from churches, from businesses, from great universities. And from the banking industry.

Leaders trained in financial institutions were the backbone of preparing America for World War II and for rebuilding Europe after it. A strong financial industry was essential to the relentless economic boom that has prevailed during the lifetime of virtually every living American. It must likewise meet the current challenge by once again leading this country out of trouble.

Because I believe so strongly that the banking industry can and should exert strong leadership, let me get one thing off my chest: I really hated to see the first pronouncement out of the American Bankers Association to be a cancellation of their annual convention. Scheduled for Palm Springs a full three weeks after the September 11 attacks, the ABA convention hadn’t been cancelled since World War II. To make matters worse, the first announcement was that the convention would take placeu00e2u20ac”a strong statement, said the ABA, that our industry would not be cowed by the terrorists. Then, only two days later, came a new press release to the effect that the best place for bankers to be “during these difficult times” was hard at work at their banks, in their communities, blah, blah, blah. This is spin, pure and simple, and unworthy of a great organization and a great industry.

So what should we do? First, it seems to me, we should recognize that every bank and every banker has an awesome responsibility. On the terrorist front, we need more than ever to know our customersu00e2u20ac”not just know their financial needs and not just in terms of their profitability, but in terms of why they are banking with us in the first place. The existence of money laundering safeguards should not diminish our efforts to be sure our businesses aren’t being used for purposes opposing the common good.

Second, we should recognize the potential for leadership by example that banks and bankers have. In an era of consolidation, bank CEOs have, too often, become invisible to the public. United Way chairmanships and other civic leadership positions once pretty much rotated among local bankers, and most banks had senior officers whose community involvements were the largest parts of their jobs. That’s faded, of course, often for good reasons. Maybe it’s time for banks to again recognize the need for community leadership by their officers, and to foster a renaissance of community involvement by banks.

And third, we should realize that exercising responsible leadership in a time of uncertainty is just good business. We’ve come through a period where higher fees and lower interest rates on savings have taken a toll on the goodwill many customers long felt for their banks. By paying attention to how this crisis affects our customers and our neighbors, by examining our services in terms of how they impact our customers’ lives, and by setting an example of how business should behave in a not-so-brave new world, bankers can provide leadership with a capital Lu00e2u20ac”just as bankers have done time and again in troubled times.

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