Arizona finds itself in an unenviable position in 2013. Having avoided another fiscal deficit in the great recession’s wake, it nonetheless shoulders the weight of other substantial accumulated debts that bear directly on health and wellness. Consider: (1) a lower – and declining – per capita income vs. the national average; (2) the fifth highest – and climbing – poverty rate; (3) nearly 30% of Arizona children living in poverty; (4) reduced public education funding that has produced a deficit of younger workers with an Associate’s degree or more; and (5) the second highest income gap among U.S. states, negatively impacting life expectancy, infant mortality rates, homicide rates, imprisonment rates, levels of trust among people, obesity, mental illness and social mobility.
In a talk titled “Poor By Choice,” Arizona Community Foundation C.E.O. Steve Seleznow presented these measures to more than 700 attendees of The Arizona Leadership Forum in Phoenix on February 8, asserting that a series of leadership decisions from the 1980’s to the present produced these results. Seleznow was contrasting author Jim Collins’ book “Great By Choice,” an analysis of companies that thrived during roughly the same time period while matched comparison companies did not. Behaviors and choices were what made the difference. Neither Seleznow nor Collins is the first to note that greatness is a choice, and Seleznow is likewise not the first to bring to our attention Arizona’s tendency to choose less than greatness. The real burning question becomes, can we learn to make better decisions for the overall betterment of the state?
Arizona’s accounting books may look alright, but we have much accounting to do for the gaps and inequities tearing at the fabric of Arizona’s capacities to maintain and improve its health, community strength, wellness and sustainability. It is important to be reminded that they are not a thankless responsibility that distracts us from cultivating economic growth; rather, they are a key part of creating it.
The choices of Arizona’s leaders often have far-reaching impact on the state’s future. Going forward, choices need to be more powerfully aligned with what’s known about creating a more productive, healthier and growing state. Are leaders primarily intended to be fiscal managers, stimulators of growth, or stewards of the public good? The answer isn’t to debate each one, but to pick all three. It’s time to think carefully about what success means in the practice of leadership, and about what ‘better’ actually is. At that point, more creative and productive options become available.