How We Can Change Culture Without Sacrificing Our Principles

Irving Kristol warned in “Two Cheers For Capitalism” that an inherent danger of democratic capitalism is allowing market forces in unfettered competition to elevate products that are harmful to society. This eventually causes society to collapse under the weight of its own self-indulgence.

A generation later, Al Sikes echoes Kristol’s clairvoyance in his book “Culture Leads, Leaders Follow,” a narrative of his time as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under George H.W. Bush and then president of Hearst New Media.

“Most leaders, it turns out, are aggressive followers and increasingly appetite-led,” Sikes writes. “The heart of soul is largely unattended. Character, too often, yields to the lowest common denominator.”

culture leads leaders follow

Sikes fought for free markets, pushing to eliminate barriers that blocked new technologies and helping pave the way for digital TV, radio and mobile phone services. But he also fought for ethics and morality in media, using his perch at the FCC to rein in Howard Stern’s vulgarity, causing the radio shock jock to wish Sikes dead on his daily radio show.

“Al writes not as a way to record his lift, to reflect on his own career, or to out the juicy specifics of his political past,” Chelsea Horvath writes in the book’s introduction. “He writes to envision a world for the future generations of leaders, to present possibilities for the storytellers to come….It is a picture of what it looks like to be the leader we should want to be, even when we feel underqualified or too small for the position ahead. It points us to an honest, humble, fearless kind of success.”

Sikes tells how his early life in the traditional, small-town Midwest shaped him to maintain his centering in the circles of power in Washington and New York. As a teenage boy in rural Sikeston, Missouri (yes, named after a paternal ancestor), Sikes’ parents owned a general store. They risked a customer backlash when the Sikes family stood in support of school integration during the Eisenhower years. At 15, Sikes walked through the school doorways with African-American classmates, emboldened by his father’s words in support of dignity for people of all races.

“Dad was acting against his self-interest,” Sikes writes. “He was rebelling against the culture where he lived and worked. He was doing the right thing. His action told me that leadership is not about getting re-elected or improving your sales, but about doing what is right … North stars burn brightly and perpetually. My dad has been gone for almost twenty years, but I can still hear his words of caution or encouragement.”

Sikes also learned about standing for principle while working under the leadership of John “Jack” Danforth, a Republican who engineered an improbable turnaround and cleanup of Missouri governance during his time as state attorney general and then U.S. senator from the Show-Me State. The grandson of William H. Danforth, founder of Purina Mills, Danforth’s father was the CEO of its successor, Ralston Purina. While in office, Jack’s family’s business came under fire for a questionable ethical practice.

“It would have been relatively easy for Jack to find a quiet face-saving angle for Purina,” Sikes writes. “Instead he told his opposite number on the phone that he had a week to agree to a public admission of wrongdoing and pay a fine or a lawsuit would be filed. Today, because we have an inherent distrust in all things political, Jack would be required to recuse himself. But as I began to learn, in Attorney General Danforth’s office, the unorthodox was frequently the orthodox. Character co-existed with power and ambition. It was more than a paragraph in a speech or a line in a political commercial.”

“I worry less about the loss of privacy than about the loss of humanity”

After moving on from state government, Sikes struck an entrepreneurial path, launching a business that bought and operated radio stations throughout the Midwest and West. Sikes was later nominated under the Reagan Administration to serve as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the Commerce Department.

“I arrived in Washington in 1986 with Midwestern sensibilities,” he writes. “I left Washington with a much tougher hide and a more skeptical attitude. New York added layers of both and a characteristic question: What is the bottom line? In quite different ways my job at the FCC and the media work I did in New York put me in the middle of culture making. Along the way I found that most creative people and their bosses seem to have little interest in the broader consequences of their radio show or record or TV sitcom or whatever expressions, or how they help shape popular culture. Unfortunately, today’s popular culture often pulls against our best instincts.”

Sikes interweaves many subjects throughout Culture Leads, connecting the many facets of society that create culture, from faith to the family. He is critical of the cultural effects of the “drug, sex and rock’n’roll” aspects of the 1960s, which he argues sparked the social engineering that led to the collapse of the family and the decline in social capital outlined in Robert Putnam’sBowling Alone.” He points out that to be “counterculture” today is what was considered “mainstream” 50 years ago. Sikes also discusses “Conscious Capitalism,” an approach to ethical business leadership launched by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

“I believe businesspeople should constantly look for that sublime blend of profit seeking, cushioned by generosity and prudence,” Sikes writes. “It is not always easy to find.”

Sikes also highlights an organization called Rocking The Boat that sadly has received little media attention. Sikes calls for a cultural revolution to usher in a restorative transcendence so often lacking from today’s coarse media offerings.

“Media frequently appeal to the lowest common denominator and when their coarseness is criticized, the companies wrap themselves in the flag of free speech, as if to coarsen society were somehow a patriotic act,” Sikes writes. “I worry less about the loss of privacy — today’s primary focus — than about the loss of humanity … Perhaps, just perhaps, ‘Culture Leads Leaders Follow’ will start some conversations and spur some initiatives that will be influential in shaping a more beneficent culture.”

Carrie Sheffield is a senior contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.