Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Leadership: please, leave the spin for later

Thanks to popular theories of participatory management, our bloated communications bureaucracies, and film footage of FDR and Churchill’s best performances, it’s now accepted that great leadership and great communication roll-outs go together.

“Grand bargain(s)” on the euro zone and the US federal deficit, actions to reduce escalating health care costs and adapt to the aging Baby Boom long ago stopped being technical or even ethical mysteries.

At a moment less dangerous for Europe than today, Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, the chairman of euro zone finance ministers, explained: “We all know what needs to be done, but we do not know how to get re-elected after that.”

Inaction and endless in-camera meetings, in large part, can be blamed on a fair-weather illusion: Leaders can always have a persuasive explanation—a winning communications plan—when they make big decisions.

Responsible leaders—at least in our representative democracies—needn’t feel so fettered. They are assigned the responsibility of making hard decisions—on time—and answering later to the people. That’s the sequence of events that allows democracies to keep up, and often surpass, the pace of decision-making in dictatorships.

Good politicians ultimately need to be good in debate. Canada’s Stephen Harper, for instance, will eventually have to defend his reforms on pensions, unemployment assistance, and environmental regulation. Next year, Obama and Congress will have to explain why they finally had to mess with George Bush’s temporary tax regime.

However, sensitive, democratic, humble, or arrogant leaders needn’t know exactly how to win all the arguments before taking action. Furthermore, often the facts speak for themselves or are so complicated and so susceptible to interpretation that only results will settle the matter.

All the issues raised above can be settled to the ultimate satisfaction of the public at large. Yet, leaders can’t simplify and broker their responses enough that they can be sure that reasonable people will understand and like what’s being done, right off the bat.

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