On Checking the Country’s Pulse

When he was mayor of New York City, Ed Koch was famous for asking ordinary people on the street a very simple question: “How’m I doing?”

It’s a question all government officials should be asking their constituents, since we pay their salaries and provide them with benefits packages few Americans receive as part of their employment agreements.

Why don’t more leaders ask for insight into their job performance, a practice known in the corporate world at 360-feedback? My guess is fear factors in; they might not like the answer.

Since few leaders are willing to follow Ed Koch’s approach to performance management, which incidentally was way ahead of its time, here’s another suggestion. When visiting major cities, government and would-be officials should talk to cab drivers.

I kid you not. If you want to know what’s really happening in America, talk to cabbies.

Why? Cab drivers talk to a lot of people from a wide range of backgrounds. In addition, cabbies are often immigrants who bring a broader perspective to what they observe.

Earlier this month, I was in Chicago and had the opportunity because of traffic and the distance from my hotel to the downtown area to speak with two cab drivers at length.

The first was a man born in Lebanon who had moved to Canada with his family as a teenager, when his native country was at war. He left Canada five years ago to start a business in the United States that was unsuccessful. This man is college-educated and, in addition to driving a cab, substitute teaches math and history at the junior-high level.

The second cab driver, a native of Nigeria, is also college-educated; he holds a business degree. He came to the United States 16 years ago so his children could have better educational opportunities. He had a good job but after being laid off and unable to find work in his field opted to drive a cab to support his family during a time of transition.

Well, did I get an earful from both men.

They both expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the economy, the deteriorating infrastructure, the country’s education system, the war in Iraq, and our nation’s leaders in very articulate, specific terms.

These conversations have stayed with me, and I wish our leaders and would-be leaders could spend time with these men and other people like them.

“I am very disappointed in the United  States of America,” said the man from Nigeria.

But, interestingly, he doesn’t put the entire blame on government officials.

“I am also disappointed at how uninformed the American people are,” he told me. “In the UK, seven out of 10 people know what is going on in American government, with American politics. In the United States, maybe three out of 10 people know what is going. They are very uniformed and this is their country. Why is this?”

As the granddaughter of a man who left everything behind to come to this country to build a new life, I wish I had an explanation for American indifference. Our leaders aren’t the only ones responsible for the current (inter)national nightmare. Every person has a part in the process.

So read. Watch the news. Talk to one another.

Then rock the vote and change the country for the better. Do it for yourself, of course, but also for those two cab drivers in Chicago -and every other hard-working person who doesn’t want to give up on the American dream.

Paula Santonocito
Career Editor, SingleMindedWomen.com