Harvard Business Review

Beware "the Pledge"


Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 22, 2011 8:56 AM

As we hear each day in the news, numerous politicians have taken a “pledge” not to increase taxes (this apparently includes closing tax loop holes). The presidential campaign is getting into full swing and each Republican candidate is being asked whether they have signed the “pledge.” This is all in the context of a pivotal moment in our history—the culmination of many years of increasing federal government debt (including entitlements) as a percentage of gross national product.

I am not a political expert. I am a business person and a leadership professor. However, I do know this—successful business and non-profit leaders are not afraid to ask tough questions and face reality. They look at facts and adjust to them as things change. Globalization, technological innovation, and changing demographics are just some of the changes that private sector leaders must adapt to if they hope to succeed. A rigid adherence to a particular approach and refusal to adapt to changing reality ultimately leads to failure in the private sector.

Great leadership is not about having all the answers—instead, it is about asking the right questions, debating and being open to learning, and adapting as needed to achieve the vision and key priorities of your organization.

Why would we not hold our government leaders and ourselves to this same standard? Why would we want our leaders to presume in advance that certain key policy options are off the table? If a business did this, it probably wouldn’t be around very long. Private sector leaders—the ones who are able to sustain success over the long term—know that being willing to ask uncomfortable questions, learn the truth, and avoid pre-ordaining the answers, allows them to stay in business and excel. They know that facing reality can cause them to change their minds—and that they must remain open to doing so.

I have a great deal of respect for our elected officials. I also have a lot of respect for any candidate throwing their hat in the ring to run for president. Because of my respect for these government leaders, I would like to urge all of us to hold them to a much higher standard. I expect them to face the facts, ask questions, keep an open mind, use their best judgment, and avoid ruling in or out key policy options. I have enough confidence in them that if they do their homework and use their best judgment, they’ll make the right decisions for our nation. This is the proud legacy of our country—our leaders have historically faced reality, done their best and courageously made decisions based on their best analysis and assessment of facts.

I believe our leaders are up to this job. As a result, I would suggest that the next time you are assessing whether to vote for a leader who proudly says they took “the pledge,” make sure it’s The Pledge of Allegiance. Our country needs leaders who will strive to remain open to asking questions, facing reality, and finding solutions to tough problems—without worrying about who gets the credit or the blame.

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