No More Armchair Quarterback Leadership: 13 Resolutions for American Government Leaders

2 Jan

I enjoyed the holiday season with my family and made a conscious decision to avoid the news for most of the month of December. I finished 2012 with a great feeling of accomplishment. My children are healthy, happy, and still young enough to believe that Mom and Dad are experts on everything. My family has exciting opportunities in 2013. Life is very good.

As we finished putting away the decorations and vacation laundry this week, however, I tuned back into the Fiscal Cliff chaos and finished the first day of 2013 with a knot in my stomach. I watched the political brinkmanship and wondered what is to come of this country in 2013. Will we once again be forced to watch as the most polarized and unpopular leadership in memory wiles away every shred of respect that we still have for government? As I followed the lead up to the vote last night on Twitter, I came across a Tea Party group’s post calling Progressives like me Communists and once again I longed to live in a place where rational adults could have strong disagreements about policy without resorting to name-calling like children. I watched the leaders from each party calling on President Obama to “lead” and wondered what more they envision when they say this. To me, the problem is obvious.

The old methods of leadership no longer work in 21st Century America. 

I am fascinated by leadership theories and the many suggestions for leaders’ 2013 resolutions. As leadership training and theory for politicians and public administrators is so sadly lacking in comparison to the plethora of business related information, I am always searching the leadership blogs for strategies that can be applied to the public serving sector.

Obviously the hierarchical leadership methods preferred by our current crop of Father Knows Best chest-thumpers is not really applicable in such a divided government where power is thwarted not only by the Constitutionally created three branches but also by two parties that have forgotten to see each other as partners, intra-party divisions, and decades of complicated incremental changes in process that have made it possible for never-ending obstruction and gerrymandered safe haven districts that remove the normal fears of re-election from the compromise process.

The Strong Mother Leadership Model of Public Leadership counteracts the current leadership weaknesses in positions where leadership is expected but power and authority over subordinates and stakeholders is not absolute. The model is one based on collaboration, shared core goals, and mutual respect.

To that end, I offer some suggested resolutions for Congress (and all public leaders – be they elected or civil servants) from the Strong Mother Leader standpoint.

13 Leadership Resolutions for the 113th Congress in 2013

1. Remember your manners – and never say something you may regret later. Once you say something nasty about someone, you can never take it back. Using bad manners, be they in direct conversation and debate or through name-calling and personal attacks in the various media channels of print, television, radio, or online, shows people whether or not you respect them as fellow human beings and citizens. If you think your opponent is the spawn of Mao or Satan, but you are not so sure as to stake your children’s future on it, it is probably best to refrain from calling them evil, heartless, Godless, Hitler, Communists, Socialists, the American Taliban, etc.

2. Accept that life is compromise and learn to do it gracefully. Every Strong Mother on Earth understands this. If it is a choice between being able to feed your kids or being a stay-at-home-mom , there is only one moral choice. If it is a choice between taking the big promotion that will let you send the kids to the best college one day or the Hybrid flexible schedule of work that will let you be around more to help with their homework, that is a personal compromise. If it is a choice between attending one child’s ballet recital or another’s baseball game, that is a shared compromise. Practice makes for a more perfect union.

3. Stop procrastinating. Develop better time management techniques. Do not wait to do the big assignment on the night before it is due and then wonder why the final product is not what you had planned. You set a terrible example for all who follow you, and worse, your product impacts people’s lives.

4. Refrain from judging and seek out new perspectives. As much as possible, learn from Lincoln who said: “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.”  Being that you cannot actually live another’s life, and since in our economic class segregated neighborhoods and society it is not likely the Walmart checkout staff will get to personally know the Walton family, simply resolve to stop lumping people into groups. Simply treat everyone as you would like them to treat you – even if those people would never vote for you, never meet you at the cafe, and never cheer in the same stands you do. Invite suggestions for improvement and then act on the good ones.

5. Commit to spend half your time looking for new ways to partner. As Margo McKnight, the executive director for the Wildlands Network, taught me long ago, real progress comes when you bring partners together from sides who would seem to be bitter enemies. I was reminded of this while watching “Big Miracle” yesterday with my boys. The environmentalist and the oil executive may seem to have nothing in common, but they are both human beings. Unless you are fighting supernatural aliens, find the humanity in your opponents and look for similar interests to build on.

6. Be a good role model. Real leaders create new leaders. They inspire. They build up their subordinates and followers to assume control in succession planning. For public leaders, this extends to everyone who watches you. The child who might grow up to be Senator. The new mom who wants to work for the EPA. The retiree who wants to pursue a new life of public service. Remember that most of them will have no public leadership training except for watching you. When you are tempted to play games designed only to win elections or gain more power, ask yourself if that is how you would like the rest of the leaders to behave now and in the future. Did you teach your children to put their own needs above everyone else or did you teach them to be a loyal, honest, contributing member of the family, the community, their business?  Lead that way. 

7. Encourage listening, friendship and bipartisanship. Assign each leader a lunch buddy (or something much more professional sounding) from the opposing party or competing organization. Assign each young leader a mentor from each party who will welcome them and their families into their homes and social circles.

8. Make elected and civil leaders follow the same training requirements. If assigning buddy mentors simply too much to start with, require elected leaders to attend the same mandatory annual training as federal employees on how to avoid offensive language, identify bad decisions, and how to work together with a diverse team for a common goal. If nothing else, requiring elected leaders to complete CEUs and mandatory training they require of civil servants might open a few eyes. **And while you are at it, consider living with the same benefits packages you provide military and civil servants in order to 1) set an example; 2) walk a mile in their shoes; and 3) show respect that you do not hold yourselves to be more important than the rest of the public labor force who often commit their lives to the country whereas you may only serve a few terms before accepting lucrative lobbying jobs.

9. Commit to attracting, retaining and rewarding good employees. Stop attacking public and military salaries, benefits, and motivations immediately! If you were running a Fortune 500 company, would you really implement a multi-year salary and raise freeze regardless of performance for your entire workforce at a time when a huge chunk of your labor force was preparing to retire (taking their expertise and knowledge) and you needed to attract and retain the best and brightest to solve enormous problems? If your goal was to destroy your company by scaring off great employees while encouraging your workers to stop working hard, this might be a good strategy. If you actually wanted to have the experts in place to carry out the work effectively and efficiently, you might want to stop treating them like nothing more than potential drags on the pension system.  Also, immediately implement a comprehensive overhaul of the grading system so that exemplary employees can jump levels to encourage retention rather than using arbitrary requirements on time in grade. Strong Mother leaders know it is easiest to treat all your children the same regardless of talent, but choose to modify rewards because it is neither fair to the top performer nor good preparation for the others to try harder if effort counts for nothing.

10. Agree on immediate campaign finance reform. There is no chance any elected official could still argue against this, right? It’s a no brainer. Make it your first piece of bipartisan legislation (immediately following aid for Hurricane Sandy victims). Strong Mother leaders know to tackle the big picture issues first.

11. Live simply so that others may simply live. Simplify everything from the tax code to the regulatory system. No loopholes. Start from scratch. Re-write it all in plain language. Agree to make all ballot initiatives, bills, and other policy decisions abide by the Government Plain Language guidelines. Strong mothers know you cannot expect the rules to be followed if they are not simple, plainly visible, and almost completely above point by point negotiating at every opportunity.

12. Set priorities for decision-making compromises. Perhaps something like: Education, Infrastructure, Safety, Environment, Health, Emergency. Assign a ranking system to how you make decisions and which bills and decisions will get priority placement and financing. Set your budget first and then allocate based on the formula you agreed on for ranking. (By the way — this would mean no more pork-barrel bills. Up or down vote on individual items in categories.)

13. Get in the trenches or get out of the way. If you cannot lead, get out of the kitchen so-to-speak. If you want to threaten a filibuster, have the courage to actually stand there and do one the right way. If something you believe in is threatened with defeat by filibuster, do not just give up because of the threat. Enact filibuster reform. Quit calling on the opposition to show more leadership without explaining what you consider that to be — or demonstrating it yourself. Quit waiting on the world to change to agree with you and see what you can agree on with the world as it is. And, if you don’t have a better suggestion to solve a problem than the one that the other side has (especially if you have no suggestions at all), get out of the way and let the leaders lead. If their plan doesn’t work out, ok. Then you can come up with a better one. But, do not encourage stagnation until everyone can agree with you at some mythical point in the future.

Strong Mother leaders understand the futility of backseat driver, armchair quarterbacking know-it-all types when there is hard work to be done. If you have so much to say but can’t get off your, ahem armchair, to do it – get out of the way and let the real leaders lead.

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