10/20/2011 10:02 EDT | Updated 12/20/2011 05:12 EST

Could the Greek Economic Crisis Happen to Us?


There has been a gradual and fascinating evolution of the prevailing mood in my birth country over the past few months. At first it was predictable denial -- "This isn't really happening"; "We're fine"; or "It's all exaggerations, myths and drama." Then my fellow Greeks became incredulous -- "How could this possibly happen to us?" Then came the classic blame-shift, blended with a hearty dose of old-fashioned Mediterranean xenophobia -- "They were too eager to lend to us"; "They were trying to destroy us and push us into bankruptcy." And more recently there has been some sober and healthy questioning of the effectiveness of their own leadership; they've started to wonder how and for how long their governments may have been failing them; and they've begun to debate what national governance should really be all about.

There is more to come, of course -- the final step in this process of national mourning and cleansing will be the painful realization that there is more than enough trickle-down blame to be had by every single member of that society; that they're all, individually and collectively, responsible for the spectacular mess they're in now; that the only path back to prosperity and domestic peace will be through a lot less individualism, a lot more mutual respect and a fundamental redefinition of their currently twisted and oversimplified notions of "democracy" and "freedom."

In the meantime, while the Greeks are mostly focused on figuring out the shortcomings of their national leadership, perhaps this is an appropriate time for us to also understand how our elected leaders are expected to protect us from slipping into a similar societal abyss. I would argue that the main cause of Greece's demise over the past generation was not just incompetent management of their nation's business but also a pervasive lack of social leadership. Their various elected governments tried to manage (sometimes honestly, mostly not) but they rarely led -- and were certainly not expected to lead. Without a requirement of thoughtful, long-term leadership, managers tend to be very opportunistic; success metrics can become narrow and strictly quantitative while horizons can become very short. In a nouveau-riche society that had fallen in love with the quick drachma or euro, any notions of long-term vision or social balance had all but evaporated.

So, what about us? Do we also run the risk of shifting our governance pendulum too much towards basic wealth management and away from the long-term stuff? Is there a risk of us becoming too enamoured with our terrific natural resource windfall at the expense of long-term vision? Are we understanding exactly what has historically earned us top marks in the world's balanced scorecard -- and are we doing everything we can to maintain that wonderful distinction, primarily on behalf of those who will inherit this beautiful country from us?

I would argue that, generally, we're in excellent shape compared to most other nations. We reinvest and diversify our prosperity; we are proud protectors of our social net and balanced wealth distribution; we constantly enrich our DNA through the world's most effective and generous inbound immigration system; and we adore competency, moderation, mutual respect and non-idealistic leadership. In short -- it would be really tough for us to screw it all up and end up in the same situation as Greece. But it's important that we stay vigilant, particularly at a time when so many of our fellow citizens have become cynical about the democratic process and many have disengaged entirely. We can't take our good fortune for granted. If more and more of us tune out, if we start forgetting what got us here and neglecting our core values as a nation, if we simplify our yardsticks and only reward opportunistic management instead of visionary leadership, then we could end up closer to that same slippery slope as Greece. We're good now; but let's make sure we stay good.