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Dawn Bennett, Host of Radio Show "Financial Myth Busting," Interviews John Allison, CEO of the Cato Institute & Author of "The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure"


Washington, DC -- (ReleaseWire) -- 01/30/2015 --BENNETT: John Allison is the former CEO of BB&T Bank and the current CEO of the Cato Institute, a public policy research organization, dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Allison is also author of the bestselling book, The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure, which, according to Steve Forbes, is one of the most important books of the year and one that our founding fathers would be impressed by. John, welcome to Financial Myth Busting.

ALLISON: Good morning, Dawn.

BENNETT: It seems to me that President Obama doesn't know how, or even care, to govern. He just wants to give a great speech and then have the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate carry out his wishes. Do you think that's a true portrait?

ALLISON: Unfortunately, Dawn, I think he may be one of the worst leaders as a president in American history. It's ironic of course, as he got elected with his charisma, which people misinterpreted as leadership. Leadership has a clear vision, but he moves all over the place and is unable to bring people together and get real solutions. He divides people, he creates unnecessary chasms and then tries to always blame somebody else. I think that leaders do take the responsibility for bad outcomes and in the past, he has always found somebody else that caused the problem.

BENNETT: But what would be his incentive to improve?

ALLISON: Well, it's an interesting question at this stage in his career. You would think that if you wanted to be the president you would want to make a positive difference.

BENNETT: Right. Show a little pride.

ALLISON: Yes, you would have a little pride. I don't know if we've ever had a president that seemed less interested in being president and doing what presidents are supposed to do. So it's a really interesting phenomenon. I don't know, there is a difference between charisma and leadership and that's one of the problems we have in the political spectrum in general.

BENNETT: Why is it that the media continue to give President Obama a pass and point the finger at his opponents?

ALLISON: Well, I think there are couple of things. First, I think his race is a big deal for the media. They paint that they are really happy that we have an African-American president and I understand that, there's some legitimate reasons for that, given the whole history. And second, the press is generally progressive too and they want to believe what he's saying will work out, even though the facts are overwhelming that it won't. I think the press evades a lot because they want the guy to be successful, because they want his policies to work—even though his policies don't work—and they are evading the facts.

BENNETT: Let's get back to core of your book True Leadership and why it is the key to unlocking our long-term economic and societal well-being. In your book you argue that many Americans, as well as corporations and government organizations, have lost their sense of purpose. Can you describe what you mean?

ALLISON: If you look at human beings, we are basically purpose-directed entities. So we have to know where we're going in order to get there, and organizations are simply groups of human beings. Organizations, to be successful, have to inspire a sense of purpose in their employees. And I think for the vast majority of people, purpose has two components. One is: almost everybody does want to make the world better place to live. You don't have to go and feed hungry children in Africa to do that. Our businesses make the world a better place to live in, and that's one thing that business people need to recognize. We are producers and you can't be giving things away until somebody produces it. People do want to make a difference. But secondly—and this is something that's way under-discussed—individuals have a right to pursue their personal happiness, so they need to make a world better place to live, but they want to do something for their own personal lives, and organizations have to figure out how to inspire people to try to do something that is worthwhile. And it can be a better meal, or a better restaurant or a better service. It doesn't have to be grandiose but at the same time, set up incentives in more systems so that the individual gets to feel good about their work, get some economic and psychological worth from that.

BENNETT: You're saying that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness motivate individual decision making. What is the relationship between the declining role of leadership in America today and our decreasing capitalist economy? Free markets are gone. Are these two issues connected or disconnected?

ALLISON: I think they are definitely connected and one of the real problems, one of the enemies in an ironic way, of capitalism, is a lot of businesses. Unfortunately, we have drifted toward what's called crony capitalism—I really think the better word is crony statism—but many business leaders, instead of focusing on producing better products and services for their clients, which is what business is about (and making money doing it, of course), are focused on trying to get some kind of free ride from the government. A lot of times that starts innocently, in a certain sense. If you look at the history of Walmart and Microsoft, they didn't have any political efforts until somebody attacked them, but then they immediately reverted and they are both crony capitalists now. They are not the worst crony capitalists, the worst crony statists, but we have gotten terrible. It's ironic that the progressives have actually advanced crony statism pretty radically. So you have this unhealthy relationship and large businesses looking for favors from the government and the government willing to provide them if they get support from the businesses. ObamaCare is a classic example.

BENNETT: What do you think about Jonathan Gruber that he, or at least someone, released?

ALLISON: I think somebody released those videos. I think Jonathan Gruber reflects exactly the cynicism of the elitists in Washington, DC, in particular the progressive elitists. Now, I'm a business guy that went to work at a free market think tank, at Cato, and I have known how bad DC was, but it's much worse than I thought. Because all these elitists, they all went to Harvard, MIT, or somewhere like that and they are absolutely certain that they are smarter than anybody, that basically we are all stupid and they know what's good for us. So, if you listen to Jonathan Gruber, he really thinks we are stupid and he thinks he's doing us a favor. I mean, it's not that he's trying to hurt us, he thinks he's helping us because we can't take care of ourselves. And that is the attitude in DC, and by the way, it's not just on the left. There are a lot of people on the right who feel the same way.

BENNETT: According to Gruber, the Obama administration hoodwinked the American people to pass legislation that very few would have wanted otherwise. Do you think he's right about that?

ALLISON: Absolutely. And this is very interesting. He is the primary architect of ObamaCare even though the Democrats act like he didn't have anything to do with it. He was the guy that they said, 'This is a great genius that we got from MIT who has figured all this out.' And the other thing the guy said that has been interesting is in the case that just got to the Supreme court on ObamaCare. He admitted that in ObamaCare, the system, the law was designed to force states to have exchanges, so that the federal government wouldn't have an exchange and make a big mess like it did. If you don't have an exchange, your citizens can't get the incentive tax credits, and of course that's going to destroy the program, and he has admitted that. Cato has been involved in a fight to try to get back to the Supreme Court because if you read the law, the law was explicitly clear. I think, fortunately, the Supreme Court has agreed to take that case, which says to me there is a good chance you are going to see a major setback for ObamaCare in the court system.

BENNETT: Obama said in Brisbane today that Gruber was just an advisor who wasn't on his staff, and that the American people were not misled on ObamaCare. Owning your mistakes is one of the traits of a great leader. Why won't Obama do that?

ALLISON: I think it's a terrific character flaw. We should never elect a guy that has never been in a leadership role. Whatever you thought about his policies and all the other reasons he may have been elected, like his charisma, if you've never been a leader, you don't know about the responsibility of leadership. And then, all of the sudden, you get one of the most difficult leadership jobs in the world, to lead the United States, and one thing that leaders do is they take responsibility for errors and they're honest. He is acting like this guy wasn't doing the role that he was doing. And what's interesting—and this goes back to your press question—he somehow gets away with that, even though there's lots of documentation, lots of interviews about those who said this guy is wonderful, and now he didn't have anything to do with it, and it's documentable that Obama is not telling the truth and the press didn't push that.

BENNETT: When Gruber's videos came out, the press, the big television stations, were avoiding it. They weren't putting it on as a primary interview or discussion. Or even secondary, or tertiary. They waited for many weeks before they did.

ALLISON: And the New York Times I don't think, at least until recently, because we were following it, has never really covered the story. I mean that's a pretty big story. That's sad.

BENNETT: President Obama seems to sidestep Congress and the American people to get his way on any issue rather than trying to win them over. Do you think that he would have benefited if he had been raised in a more free-market America?

ALLISON: Yes. And it's ironic that he is theoretically a constitutional attorney, that's what he's supposed to have taught, although I was talking with a number of people that had his class when he was teaching, and they said he really didn't teach constitutional law, but that's what he's postured as. And he obviously has no interest in the constitution and the separation of powers which is really unhealthy for an American president because we do have a limited executive branch. It's expanded under Republicans but he is really taking it to a new plane.

BENNETT: I am not a Republican, I am not a Democrat. I am a fiscal conservative and, truthfully, a social liberal. I'm a centrist, and I keep thinking that if Obama had worked in the private sector before he became president, it would have been helpful. What do you think?

ALLISON: Absolutely! Absolutely! He has never been in an environment where you have to be disciplined about markets and about the customers, where you can't just blow a bunch of smoke and have a lot of rhetoric. In other words, he has never really been disciplined by reality until now.

BENNETT: What about your leadership methods? You were at the helm of BB&T, you oversaw the banks growth of assets from $4.5 billion to $152 billion. That's tremendous. How did your leadership characteristics play a role in this type of growth?

ALLISON: Well, I think the key to our success was a really strong value system. In my book I define that value system, beginning with a vision and sense of purpose but also some very strong ethics, starting with reality and reason and honesty and integrity and a lot of things that define what is ultimately successful for human behavior. We had a belief, and this is interesting, as you always hear that the way to get ahead is to kind of cheat. We said, no. It's not. Not in the long term. In the long term, behaving in an ethical manner produces better outcomes and we had a really strong belief in that, and we never compromised our values in the good times or the bad times. There were times when our relative performance didn't look as good because some other people were trying to do some easy thing like affordable housing loans and we refused to do that kind of stuff. And in the long-term, it ended up being a significant strength. So it was very much a values-driven organization.

BENNETT: Most people aren't CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but leadership is still important even in settings as small as a household. What are some takeaways from your book about how we can be better leaders on a smaller scale?

ALLISON: That's a great question. One of my arguments in the book is that the most important person to lead is yourself, and that most failures of leadership are failures of self-leadership. So I think you have to begin with what I call a self-vision, a projection of what you would like to look like 5 years from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now. If you really were who you wanted to be, what would that look like? What's the picture? How would you feel? How would you act? And the same thing with your family. How would your family look 5 years, 10 years from now? I mean, some things like getting kids to college or maybe some more subjective things, and then related to that, a purpose statement: what is the purpose of my family? Or at the individual level, what do I want to do to make the world a little better place to live in some context? Again, it doesn't have to be grand, but something that I would personally really enjoy doing for me, that would energize and empower me. And then, once you get clear about your vision and purpose, you've got to develop a strategy. You'll never get there by chance, but what's the next step, what educational experiences might I have, or maybe I need some psychological help? What are the things that would enable me and/or my family to get to this vision and purpose; what's my strategy?

BENNETT: That's good.

ALLISON: And then underlying that—and I talk a lot about this—what values do I want to lead my life by that would enable me to make this vision a reality, that would make it a long term perspective? One of the core values is real honesty, and that begins first with honesty with yourself. Most big mistakes are made because people evade. They get some information that they know that they ought to think about maybe change their behaviour, but they don't want to hear it because it's threatening to something that they want to believe about themselves, something they want to believe about the world, so they can't learn, they can't grow. That's just internal dishonesty and it keeps them from facing their weaknesses and moving on.

BENNETT: No conversation about leadership is complete without talking about actual leaders. As you look towards 2016, are there any who stand out as being strong enough to navigate America back towards prosperity and personal liberties?

ALLISON: That's a really interesting question. In some ways, I am not a huge fan of Ronald Reagan. I don't think all of his policies were good. In other ways, I am a huge fan of Ronald Reagan because he turned the attitude of America around. You maybe have to be in my age group to realize how depressed this country was after Jimmy Carter. It was horrible. And whatever weaknesses Reagan may have, they were overwhelmed by what I call his sense of life. He was focused on fundamental principles, on what's possible, and of course he did some great things like cut taxes too, but that was huge and we need an inspirational leader but not a superficial, dumb inspirational leader, somebody that understands America's values, America's sense of life. This is a unique and different country, this is a country based on opportunity, and government typically gets in the way of opportunity and prevents opportunity. So I don't know that I see one out there. I will say this, of the people that are running for office I like Rand Paul a lot.

BENNETT: Is Obama brave? I do think he can take a punch, but I also think he is bored. I can't imagine being bored as the President of the United States. He seems to be more interested in splashy vacations and golfing and private planes and helicopters. I feel that U.S. citizens are tired of his banality. What do you think?

ALLISON: I think everything you said is true. Here's what I think about Obama. I think he is arrogant. Arrogance often projects over-confidence. In reality, arrogance reflects a very low self-esteem, and I think Obama has a deep level of very low self-esteem and what all these evasions and airplane trips were about, are evasions. It's not that he is bored, it's that he really at some gut deep level knows he is not competent to do this job. But he can play golf. So he is a classic case of a man way over his head, and you see this in business at all levels of an organization, who instead of doing his job, he develops hobbies. I think he is very arrogant, which reflects very low self-esteem and that explains a lot of his behavior. He knows he is not qualified for the job.

BENNETT: Back to Reagan, I do think he was a great leader. I think one of the reasons why we remember him is his clarity and honesty. Great leaders honestly suffer for the people that they lead, but they also conduct a constant dialogue about what they are doing and what they want to achieve. They stand for something and articulate that. Do you think Obama stands for anything?

ALLISON: Not really, not in the sense that Reagan did. Reagan's ideas were so deep and he was a lot smarter than he really got the credit for, but he really, really believed what he said. And he really took responsibility if something went wrong. I mean, he never backed away, and I think Obama doesn't have that. I think his ideas are what I call at the top of his mind. They are not deep, they are not kind of soul level ideas, right?

BENNETT: Like he is not telling us his real motivations or his real beliefs?

ALLISON: I don't think he even knows. I think he's a classic guy that heard all this stuff at Harvard. He seems to be intelligent, probably was over his head, and he's mouthing back top-of-the-mind stuff, whereas Reagan really had gut-level belief in what he said. You can argue that he was right or wrong, but he really believed in it and I think people got that. And he was also benevolent. Obama is not benevolent. Reagan was just, you could just tell he was great human being you would like to have lunch with. I don't want to have lunch with Obama. And forget his politics, he just seems like an artificial guy to me.

BENNETT: The polls tell us that he's not a truth teller. Isn't this is a treacherous approach for a true leader?

ALLISON: Absolutely. I think that's the number one test, is honesty. At the end of the day, that is the foundational value, and if someone is dishonest, you can't trust him. And he's lied so much. It's like, 'You can keep your health insurance,' but that's just an example of myriads of lies. Unfortunately, a lot of politicians do that, but he's really more abusive than most people.

BENNETT: Should we start looking outside of politics for elected leaders?

ALLISON: Yes. The dilemma that I see, and I've talked to a lot of business leaders, is the best people just don't want to be in politics because of all the abuse they take. And that's understandable. It's understandable because the press is trying to find warts instead of focusing on big steps. At the end it is because people that I would care about are not going to be progressives, they're not going to align with the press in terms of their values and beliefs. They know they are going to get slaughtered in the political process and I think unfortunately we don't get the best people run for politics. I think it's always been a challenge, if you go back to what happened with Jefferson and Adams and how they were criticized. But I think it's much worse today because the media is so pervasive in so many areas.

BENNETT: Your new book, The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure, is excellent. Talk to us about it.

ALLISON: Thank you. My goal is to help people create a sense of self-leadership in themselves and to understand how that applies to organizations, like families and businesses. But also to take those ideas and see how they connect with what the founding fathers were talking about, particularly about the pursuit of happiness. And that's what so unique and powerful about America. We don't exist for other people's good, although family and friends and all that matters, we have the right to pursue our personal happiness in the deepest sense of the word and I think this book shows that's a good thing in the society.

BENNETT: John Allison's book The Leadership Crisis and the Free Market Cure is available on

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About Dawn Bennett
Dawn Bennett is CEO and Founder of Bennett Group Financial Services. She hosts a national radio program called Financial Myth Busting She discusses educational topics and events in the financial news, along with her thoughts on the economy, financial markets, investments, and more with her live guests, who have included rock legend Ted Nugent, as well as Steve Forbes and Grover Norquist. Listeners can call 855-884-DAWN a as well as take podcasts on the road and forums for interaction.

She can be reached on Twitter @DawnBennettFMB or on Facebook Financial Myth Busting with Dawn Bennett or