Standing Your Ground

How do you know when it’s time to stand firm on a point and when it’s time to cave in and go with the flow?

The answer is obvious: You never know, not for sure.

The hardest calls are the ones you make alone. You listen intently, gather data, think about the situation, seek counsel from close advisors, but in the end if you decide to take a stand, consider yourself alone.

Values, ethics, morals — all of them seem clear on paper when you are reading about someone else’s lapse. That’s called history. You read it in hindsight with reflection. You wonder in amazement at how something so rotten could have been advanced.

Looking forward is another problem entirely.

If you think making a decision on principle is easy, you probably haven’t yet made a hard one. If you have put yourself on the line for a heartfelt conviction, you know that courage is not something usually acknowledged in the present tense. It is awarded upon completion of a task, win or lose, based on context.

In the present you might be called something else entirely: difficult.

Difficult people tend to get a bad rap, and being difficult just to be difficult is not likely to lead you to the corner office. Some of the questions we face in staring down adversity include:

  • Whether we have thoroughly thought through an objection to the more genially accepted plan we oppose.
  • Whether dissension without triumph creates any intrinsic value of its own.
  • Whether the cost of standing in isolation is worth it.

Let’s think about those three filters as we ponder a few hypothetical but easily applicable real-world examples of standing your ground in the corporate world.

Someone Getting Fired Unjustly. Suppose a colleague of yours, Charlie, has somehow become the fall guy for a project that has spiraled wildly off schedule and budget. The project team has found an easy out because your department VP is already known to dislike Charlie, so all the group has to do is subtly throw Charlie under the bus and the clock resets to zero. You don’t particularly like Charlie, but you know he is no more innocent or guilty than anyone else on the wayward team. When you suggest a defense of Charlie to the group, it becomes clear that if you go to bat for the loser, you will be ostracized, And hey, everyone knows the VP has been looking for a way to get rid of Charlie for years, so how are you going to talk her out of it?

Bonus Calculations Are Manipulated. You work under a sales leader who is a notorious sandbagger (someone who asserts a goal is a Hail Mary when it’s an underhand toss), but smooth talker that he is, his forecasts go through every year and your team receives handsome bonuses. This year he sets a revenue goal that your team has already achieved with existing repeat business. His plan is approved. This year’s goal is in the bag before the starting gun is even fired, so bonuses will be flowing like water. Then you attend a company meeting and hear the CEO say in earnest that the company is having some critical financial issues this year and will probably lose money unless everyone digs deep for a better outcome. You approach your sales leader and suggest he increases the sales goal so bonuses aren’t paid out of losses. He tells you that you don’t understand the CEO’s game, and if you so much as mention taking up the goal again, you will certainly need to find another sales team, and possibly a new employer.

Confidential Information Is Compromised. After months of going in circles and failing to make progress on a design problem, the senior engineer on your team circulates a breakthrough project plan. Your company has been losing market share to a competitor for the last year on inferior feature design at high cost, but at last that is behind you. Late one night when you are building out your portion of the specification, you overhear a conversation where the senior engineer jokes that it only cost him a few thousand dollars cash to hack the competitor’s database and extract the secret sauce that has been causing your company to lose. You approach the senior engineer and tell him you are uncomfortable with what you overheard. He tells you he was just bragging, it was open-source code he found and modified, and he would appreciate it if you didn’t broadcast that because open-source solutions are frowned upon in the company. Is he lying about open-source vs. hacking? Either way, if you speak up you’re going to be responsible for stalling the turnaround.

On first blush I’m sure most people considering these scenarios think they would do the right thing, because we all like to believe when faced with a crisis of values, ethical people will choose to act with ethical intent. Now ask yourself this: Do you know someone working beside you who has faced a similar situation and not acted in the appropriate ethical manner? If you do, why haven’t you confronted them? If you have confronted them and they have brushed you off, how far were you willing to pursue the compromise in judgment? Why are you willing to work in an environment where a person like that can get away with something so wrong?

Courage is a word that is tossed about without nearly enough care, but understand that in your time on the job you will have multiple opportunities to act courageously or not. Are you ready to put yourself to the test? Are you willing to stand your ground and take what comes with that decision when the consequences may not be reversible? If you want courage to be a descriptor of what your life is about, you’ll need to embrace the notion that poetic justice is much more present in literary fiction than it is in real life. Situational ethics may be a useful convenience, but they aren’t likely to do much for your self-esteem. You only win by doing what is right if your definition of winning is more about who you are than the outcomes you direct.

Courage is at the heart of a true leader. It can be costly in the short term, but it will always reflect your character. Standing your ground is not a question of options; it is the challenge of identity.

 

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Petition to the President-Elect

Ask Donald Trump to Speak Definitively on Diversity and Inclusion

In his first campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama gave an eloquent speech on race relations in the United States. He spoke to his personal experiences, his knowledge of history, and his vision for a diverse and inclusive future for our nation. We ask Donald Trump to do the same. We want to hear in a formal address that he fully disavows all factions that discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, age, partner preference, or any other form of prejudice. We wish to take the President-elect at his word, that he in no way condones the behavior of the Alt-Right, the KKK, any white nationalist or supremacy organizations, or any other hate group that may publicly express support for him.

We have heard Mr. Trump offer casual comments that he wants hate speech and hate crimes to stop, but we want to hear him speak to us as the leader of our cherished nation that his vision of America is one of tolerance, acceptance, and equality. We want to hear that he will distance himself from the kinds of hate groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and that he openly rejects any celebration in his honor or invocation of his name as a catalyst for divisiveness. We want his assurance that the infliction of violence upending civil rights will be met with the swift and full authority of our legal system backed by his personal support.

In giving such a speech, President-elect Trump can not only help the nation to heal, he can bring us together in a united voice that gives us reason to believe all of us who live our lives peacefully have an ongoing right to self-determination in the form of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We need to know with certainty that he wants us to get along and come together as one nation. We need to hear him assure us that he is a man of compassion and acceptance, not hate and bias.

Please add your name to our petition asking Mr. Trump to give this historic speech in the conviction that our nation will be stronger for knowing the heart of the man elected to be our next president.

Ken Goldstein, Chairman, The Good Men Project

Lisa Hickey, CEO, The Good Men Project

This petition will be delivered via change.org to:

change-org

Not Amused by the Dolled Up Wolf

As I have been out discussing my debut novel, This is Rage, over the past few months in bookstore readings and radio interviews, the question often comes up as to whether it is similar to the latest high-profile motion picture from Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street. My answer is no for three reasons. First, my story is purely fiction, and Wolf is based on a memoir. Second, my story is exaggerated for the literary purpose of satire, and Wolf appears to be exaggerated (or not) for spectacle. Third, my story depicts a cast of amoral characters on a collision course with poetic justice and renders a series of life lessons and impacts offered for discussion, while Wolf has no moral center and crudely celebrates the life of a scumbag. Fair warning, more eye-opening spoilers ahead.

wolf-of-wall-streetI usually quite like Martin Scorsese pictures, but I really despise this one. I don’t think he set out to make a movie that glorified the inexcusable crimes of Jordan Belfort, but that’s what’s on the screen, and now that people are crying out against the film, Scorsese and his cast are left with few options but to defend their work as creative expression. I don’t dispute their right to produce the film or make money from the enterprise, I simply wonder why it was necessary, especially for such an accomplished company of actors led by no less than Leonardo DiCaprio. You see, while some of us see through the veneer of statements proclaiming the indictment of Belfort as a cautionary tale, the literature simply isn’t there to support the defense. An extremely simple fix would have gone a long way to offset the damage caused by this movie in showing the devastation caused to the victims of the penny scam swindling. We never, ever see anyone get hurt by the incessant wave of fraud that takes money from the pockets of innocents and hands it for abuse to criminals. Not once, anywhere in the film, do we see the pain created when a garbage stock is sold to an ignorant or unsuspecting victim at 50% markup. Would it have been that hard to show that white-collar crime is not victimless? Do people still not understand that when sycophants like Belfort (and Bernie Madoff) lie to clients and empty their pockets, entire livelihoods–and futures–are wiped out?

It’s not funny. It’s not the stuff of sardonic humor. It’s too real. Horrific acts need to be condemned without ambiguity, or at the very least illustrated through juxtaposition to depict thought-provoking irony. The justice system failed to cause Belfort to endure fair punishment; he did 22 months soft time and now he is a celebrity. How about that, a bona-fide celebrity for publicly exposing that he lived a putrid life and is now selling his salesmanship skills as legitimate in pay-to-attend seminars, further brought to visibility by a Hollywood movie deemed worthy of frothy awards. The movie shows everything that goes against the grain of humility and equality, but let’s send up flares and say it’s a tour de force.

You know what else isn’t funny?

Sniffing cocaine off the rear end of a hooker, all paid for with piles of your stolen cash. Nyuck nyuck.

Driving a Lamborghini on public streets under the severe influence of quaaludes and endangering the lives of people around you. Nyuck nyuck.

Getting oral sex in a glass elevator from a co-worker while the rest of your company watches from the trading floor. Nyuck nyuck.

Laughing yet? No, apology not accepted. How about when a crowd of Wall Street insiders gathered for a screening of the film in Battery Park and cheered at its most lascivious moments, essentially endorsing the behavior of Belfort and his punk posse, making it clear that generating big money was laudable, and spending it lavishly even more laudable. Yeah, it happened. You remember these guys, they were the ones our federal government bailed out when the great recession was at its worst. Now they are the same guys who think it is time for Washington to back off on regulation, since everything is “back to normal.” Yep, welcome to the new normal.

No, I’m not indicting all of Wall Street; quite the contrary. I believe in the fundamental strength of our economy, and that trust in investment is the backbone of financial advancement. We put our money into stocks and bonds long-term to see our free market assets grow collectively over time–capitalism for the long haul, compounding legitimately for the greater good. It’s not meant to be a con man’s game. It’s not meant to be a fixed casino. So why portray it that way, and why would anyone who makes his or her living off the public trust applaud such despicable behavior? Starting to wonder if the 1% and the 99% are separated by more than just wealth?

Here’s something else that’s not funny, and the core of what caused my emotional reaction to this vile portrayal of a pathetic American life: It’s an open letter from Christina McDowell published in the LA Weekly. Ms. McDowell’s father was one of the pukes that Belfort threw under the bus to arrange for his reduced sentence, and her life in the ashes that followed was emblematic of the very discord that Belfort created. Because her father was also a criminal, she does not make excuses for the suffering brought on her by the loss of her family’s affluence, after which she sank into poverty as a result of her father’s lying and conniving. Instead she writes with immense empathy for the victims of both her father and Belfort, wondering as I do why these victims show up nowhere in the film, instead remaining faceless and invisible, as if nothing tangible was really taken and incinerated. This passage the day after Christmas left me especially disturbed:

So here’s the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

Nope, not funny. Not entertaining. No moral center. No poetic justice. So as the actors and technicians and storytellers and creative journeyman who crafted this epic adaptation make their way to the stage to accept their trophies this season and deliver all sorts of silly speeches about the role of art in society, think about what they did and what they could have done. Art and entertainment can be a stylized mirror, or a refracting lens, or a pastiche of temporal mores, or a slice life that causes us to interpret the actions of characters and ideas of creators. Or it can just sit there like a lump and take our money for nothing, no different from the scoundrels depicted. Two stacked wrongs don’t make this right. Don’t get fooled again. Hold the Oscars, hose this one down with a power-steam cleaning and let it dribble down the gutter where it best can dissolve from future memory.

16 Things I’m Thankful For Right Now

Last year approaching Thanksgiving I reprinted an oldie which I had sent to a former office team a while back.  Your reaction was kind, and I don’t think I can do much better than that at the moment, but perhaps there is merit in sharing some items that are currently giving me reason to smile.  Here without extended preamble is the short, unscientific list:

1) We live in a representative democracy where the peaceful and orderly handoff of authority is presumed.  As an aside, call me an optimist, but I’m spiritually betting we don’t swan dive over the Fiscal Cliff.

2) I get to write and publish this blog.  I can pretty much say anything I want without fear of disappearing into the night.

3) Diversity is cool, and increasingly, the law.

4) This year I got to celebrate my Dad’s 75th birthday with him, something he didn’t get to do with his father.  And I got to write about it.

5) My brilliant wife’s magical work teaching English as a Second Language and helping immigrants prepare for their American citizenship exams endlessly reminds me that one person can make a difference.

6) I have never run out of reasons to listen to The Beatles, and each one of their songs still makes me wonder how they pulled off that catalogue in less than ten years.

7) Yosemite, just Yosemite.

8) My dog may not see as well as she used to, but somehow she still has plenty of puppy in her.

9) The Giving Pledge will not only fuel a previously unimaginable wave of charity by choice of living billionaires, it can inspire everyday people to give what they can and know each dollar matters.

10) Frank McCourt has been extracted from ownership of The Dodgers and Chavez Ravine has survived as sacred ground.

11) Good health for those who have it.  More help for those who need it.

12) I received a generous inflow of emails this past year from former employees telling me how they are still making People-Products-Profits-In-That-Order work hard for them.

13) There is little chance I will run out of interesting stuff to read in this lifetime, new modes to ingest it, or social sharing networks to circulate my discoveries (the trick is not getting distracted by dreck).

14) I have completed a working draft of my novel, which a few of you have even read, and at last connected with a brilliant editor who totally gets it and can help me get it in front of more of you.

15) With modest prodding, yeast consumes sugar in harvested grapes, and with a few artisan touches the juice becomes wine — so much so that two glasses are never the same.

16) The candle count on your birthday cake may be daunting, but the brightness created by all that light does make it easier to see a bit better.

Happy Thanksgiving 2012.  Celebrate the joys that are yours.  Earn Each Moment.

Do Books Matter Less?

Book TreasureThe pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus was an early observer of the ever occurring change in our universe.  About the same time in the 5th Century BC, Parmenides pondered the notion of permanence, what we could presume in nature to be essential.  Between the two of them, we have a thesis and antithesis that have yet to reveal a synthesis beyond argument some 2500 years later.  We see change all around us in almost unfathomable complexity, while we wonder what we can hold onto as firm.  For me, it’s a good problem to have, as contemplation of the unsettled forces us to chew harder and argue better.

Then there are books.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece with the header “Books That Are Never Done Being Written,” Nicholas Carr contemplates the far-ranging impact of digital distribution on long-established but fluid notions of traditional publishing:

An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.

The realization that books are no more permanent than this year’s understanding of medical treatment is hardly shocking.  The very paradigm of printing on paper and binding a work has throughout its history adopted the notion of editions and revisions.  Where would the school textbook industry be without an excuse to update a classroom volume rather than allow you to feel comfortable buying a dog-eared half price two-year old version?  If we only needed one unabridged edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, think of how many academic preface summaries we would have been denied annotating discovered corrections in the core text.

Yet in the worlds of literature and even political theory, we do seem to maintain an expectation that the version we read of Charles Dickens or John Stuart Mill is largely the same as the draft the author called final.  “A Tale of Two Cities” even when presented in its initial serialization was eventually finished, as was the essay “On Liberty,” and when we buy a copy of one of these today either in paperback or download, we do believe in the authenticity of replication representing if not a fully steady state, a pretty firm slice of life.  That is helpful not only in getting us all on the same page for discussion and critique, it offers us grounding in history and social evolution, the ceaseless churn emerging from deliberately placed bricks in the wall.

I have a hard time thinking today is much different, and no matter the short attention span theater that victimizes so much of our patience, my sense is our books have never been more important — no matter the brevity of their life-cycle, no matter their imposed truncation or expansion, no matter their delivery format or storage means on wood shelf or cloud server.  Our books will change as they must, but their timeliness and meditation as collective might be the primary permanence we retain, even if it is more spiritual and metaphorical than natural or physical.  The means of delivering the book does not define the book, it is largely irrelevant, itself a timely convenience worthy of disruption.  The material of delivery is subordinated to the material of substance, it is the content that matters, not the media.  The Platonic form is the ideal, and that cannot be taken from us by technology.

However we acknowledge its consumption mechanism, the book as ideal is a bridge among scattered coordinates.  We learn to read an organized set of drawn thoughts to see what is meant by change, and those who have the gift and discipline to construct a book add to the global library of permanence by carrying the torch that challenges all that came before.  Historic observation is clear and consistent: the buildings decay, the land can be conquered and utilized anew after wars and governments are gone, but the ideas underlying arts remain for examination.  The composed book is the codification of the idea however it is presented, that does not change.

My amazing wife, who is also an amazing teacher, enters her classroom on the first day with a simple statement:

“Our books are our treasures.”

Her specialty is English as a Second Language, and whether she is teaching adults or children, this mantra is always the same.  Books are precious.  If you look around our house, you might see why this is our chorus.  Books are everywhere.  That is what we want to be surrounded by.  We also have a Kindle and an iPad.  They are filled with books as well.

Another recent story in the Wall Street Journal discussed how the price of e-books was sometimes dropping below the price of “real” books which I guess means paper books, but to me, one is no less real than the other.  The broader question remaining is whether the great majority of people should still find the time for long-form written expression in a world cluttered with half-baked tidbit social media posts like this one.  The answer has to be yes, because if we are going to allow character count to trump in-depth inquiry, we condemn our more severe concerns to being adequately addressed by less than substantial narrative.  Our pace of change is only becoming more frantic, and the hope for some form of understandable permanence all the more desirable in addressing unending anxieties.  Committed writing and reading gets us a good deal of the way there, because the acts of reading and writing might be one of the few forms of permanence we can share.

I say this as someone who just spent the better part of a year writing my first book, which is now in first draft and undergoing edit.  I haven’t talked much about the book, and won’t until we get closer to publication, but let me just say that whether anyone reads it or it sells a single copy, it will remain one of my proudest achievements.  Right now it is a long book.  It will get shorter to accommodate marketing concerns, but hopefully it will still be a substantial book.  I couldn’t have said all I needed to say in a blog post or I would have.  Believe me, I would have!

In our world of constant and increasing hyper flux, books can be thought of as a noble but flawed exercise in establishing some sense of the enduring.  Now that digital publishing allows current authors easy access to further disturbing permanence, any foothold in establishing the concrete may remain even more illusive, but the stepping-stones of thought that bridge us from there to here can certainly maintain significance if we view thought as continuum, a timeline.  In that regard, as a roadmap or even a set of breadcrumbs, books for me have never been more relevant, nor the mission of authors any less permanent.  Some books are good and some are bad, some certainly more ephemeral than others, but the connectivity of books is ongoing.  Apps or facings, that is as it should be, as long as I can read.

Are We Thankful Enough?

The following is an edited version of a note I sent to my staff a few years ago.  I started to draft a new version, but then remembered how similar this was in theme:

Each year about this time I like to take a few minutes to share some of my gratitude with colleagues. Given the industry in which we work, it is sometimes hard to separate our business interests in the holiday season from our own more personal sense of human enrichment, but let me try. True enough, the holidays can be seen through the eyes of materialism, and indeed given our dependence and expectations on retail behavior this time of year, it is too easy to allow oneself to “Get Scrooged” without seeing some of the more enlightened generosity that is all around us. Forgive me, Shelley and I attended the annual tour of Trans-Siberian Orchestra this week, so I am in a highly festive and particularly reflective frame of mind. The work we do for our customers and each other is much more than a feeding of the virtual cash register for tabulation by the National Retail Federation. The work we do has meaning because we have chosen to share this time together and infuse it with meaning. It is there if you want to see it, and it is always there for me in each of your own creative contributions and team celebrations.

Let me start with the basics, I am thankful for all of the wonderful people around me each day. As I always say, I have good days and bad days but I never have boring days. The work we do is interesting because the people we share it with are universally interesting. Each day I see your passion expand, your thinking blossom, your communication flourish, and your expectations of yourselves and each other rise to new heights. This isn’t just invigorating for me, it is sustenance. There is reason to come to work each day as long as there is purpose in the day’s activity, and sometimes that purpose is simply rooted in the ability to learn something new. I can honestly share with you that I learn something new from the imagination that surrounds us each day, and I have no sense that has likelihood of disappointing me anytime soon.

I am thankful for the good fortune of being alive at this precise moment in history. To truly appreciate and understand the power of the Internet is to have lived without it for so many years before. I used to say this about the personal computer, that to discover it as an artist’s palette was for me not a continuation of history, but a reinvention of history. Just as many of our parents were born into a world without television, the advancement in democracy of being able to see news from around the world each day was almost a miracle, as was radio before that, and widely available print before that. To be alive today at the inception of the digital age is to me a gift as well as an invitation to have a profound impact on establishing a set of norms that are as evolutionary as they are unknown. Our younger kids see texting and mobile communications and even social networking as quite ordinary, if you were here before them, my sense is you share my awe in the privilege of codifying the extraordinary.

This takes me to my third thank you for the year, appreciation for being able to have even the smallest impact on reaching out to change our world. Our technology has impact, our creativity is unbounded, and our business relationships are honest and crafted around the principle of win-win-win: a win for us is a win for our partners and a win for our customers. You may not always get to work in a culture that embraces notions of empowerment, I certainly have had my own ups and downs over the years in various places I have worked. Yet more than that, we get do fun things like embrace Make-A-Wish kids, give thousands of prize dollars away to families who need it, offer great discounts to families who might not get by without them, help people make the world slightly greener by encouraging them not to drive somewhere if they can shop at home. We also save moms time, lots of time, time that can be better spent with their families enjoying more moments than they might otherwise spend away from home on errands and chores. No, it’s not the work of Mother Theresa, but it is very positive and uplifting, especially when you read all those comments each day from people saying they “love” what we do for them. That’s a powerful word, and each morning I read it in our customer comments, I know we are doing something right.

So I wonder, are we thankful enough? Can we make Thanksgiving something more than a time to power-eat and start charging up our credit cards on the big sales days that follow?  As we enjoy two days away from the office, what is it that we can reflect on that keeps us coming to the office? Thanks for our incomes – I am sure there are varying levels of satisfaction there, but to have a regular income is still unfortunately rare in world of six billion people. Thanks for the people who sit next to us, or in front of us, or in the next room over – again, I am sure there are some around us whom you like more than others, but then again, I am confident that every one of us is within talking distance of at least one or two people we really appreciate, and as I said, don’t take that as a given, it will not always be the case. Encouragement to pursue excellence – OK, I know there are cynics out there who say this is just work-speak, but I promise you it is not, we have created an environment where we expect you to do your best and create work that makes you immensely proud, you’d be missing an important moment if you didn’t embrace and enjoy that, a lot of places it really is just work-speak. And finally, memories and future foundations – the accomplishments we enjoy, the education we give and receive from each other, the stories we are creating to enjoy at a later date, all of that is worth a moment of meditation; time escapes us in precious illusion, and though you are likely to forget this project or that deadline in the years out, if you look around you and thank your colleagues from time to time for even the smallest favor, you just might be making history, as that could become a moment you will share for years to come.

Freedom is such a difficult concept to appreciate because most of us have always known it, it is in the fabric of our society. Yet again, look around, is it the norm or a gift we can cherish? As we keep the women and men who serve us in uniform at the top of our thoughts this time of year, perhaps we can also reflect on just what it means to have the lives that we do, where we can pursue career aspirations and friendships and family and creative contributions to our world all at the same time. As I type these words, it all seems like a pretty big deal to me. I wouldn’t take it for granted. To be thankful is to truly enjoy all that we have, and as I look around our company, I see that we all have so much. I am never sure that I can personally be thankful enough.

I hope you are all enjoying this special time of year, it comes with a lot of work stress and family stress and Scrooge-Stress! Yet the journey is the reward, so let’s do our best to enjoy it and share it and where it makes sense, be thankful. You’d be surprised, it really can be a magical world when you look for the magic in each of the people around you. I see it, so very clearly!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Originally published: 11/22/07

On Polarization

In my last post I suggested that a good product development process was not democratic, it was the product of clear leadership, shared vision, teamwork, and consensus building.  Given the unacceptable performance of our elected leaders currently chewing up news headlines, I wondered what application effective free enterprise might have on the product development process that is democracy.  What can we expect of democracy in the laws and policies it creates if we think of that enterprise as group of employees whom we fund?

Imagine working for a company where you were assigned to solve an extremely difficult, hugely complex, mission critical project, and the best your team could come up with was a status quo stalemate where almost any way you projected various outcomes of the stalemate, the company was doomed to failure.  Because of the stalemate, you were more concerned about whether you would have a job when all was said and done than whether you helped your company make any progress solving the problem.  Your supreme tactic would be to blame the other side of the stalemate for the stalemate, and hope that enough people believed your story rather than theirs so that you survived and they didn’t.

Then the proverbial *$&# hit the fan.

Would this somehow be a justifiable position?  Ethically, emotionally, or logically?  Would you feel good about yourself, that you had acted within the bounds of expectation for which you had been given authority?  Would you really think you were safe from the temporarily ducked wrath of those who put you in the job?

I don’t think so.

Ringing any bells?

It is essential that we always remember in a democracy the government works for the people.  That’s makes every taxpayer an employer, since we fund the operations of our elected officials and those they appoint.  Think of yourself as a traditional employer.  If your employees were acting in the way our government is acting — posturing and manipulating and behaving with a level of dysfunction that would never be acceptable in any corporation — would you continue to tolerate it?  I would not.  I would demand cooperation, collegiality, collaboration, and progress.  Most of all, I would insist on honesty over spin, humility before ego.  That is only right in exchange for the trust of authority, plus salary and benefits.

How do we lose sight of this?  Because we fear government?  Because we don’t understand government?  Because we have become cynical and weary listening to rhetoric in all the media channels it now flows, endless noise absent of substance that drives us to the refuge of silence?  Because we are overwhelmed by the process of government where change seems so elusive we find it less painful not to engage than to engage?

Hegelian dialectic encapsulates a framework where the evolution of ideas and events is resolved through history in a process of thesis meeting antithesis resulting in synthesis.  Any reasonable person can understand this even if he or she has never heard of Hegel, who may be attributed disproportionate credit for the model.  The concept is as much observation and interpretation as it is construct, opposing opinions are always present and result in outcomes, intended or not.  Nation A and Nation B do not have a shared belief set.  If they resolve their differences amicably, change occurs.  If they do not resolve their differences amicably, they go to war.  One point of view slams into another point of view, one largely prevails, and change also occurs — much of it unpredictable.  We can only hope that the change is for the better, we cannot ensure it.  Consider the consequences of knowing attempts to drive change for unsound motivation — we get what we get.

We know that change happens when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.  If we accept the status quo of the current process, the pain will remain.  If we demand better, we will get it.  Self-serving entrenchment is not a strategy of public service, partnership is.  This requires more than a letter or two to our elected officials threatening the loss of your vote, it requires a consistent communication loop that makes our expectations of consensus building a mandate, a necessity rather than an abstract goal.

It is an honor and a privilege to serve in elected public office, not an entitlement and in democracy not a power grab.  It was never meant to be a career, it was meant to be an opportunity for those with some hard-won bits of knowledge, experience, and wisdom to give back to the community through a period of public service.  That is the beauty and brilliance of representative democracy, the leadership is expected to evolve and turn over specifically for the public good.  When we all forget that and allow the political landscape to exist as an ecosystem unto itself — an inorganic bureaucracy that feeds and fuels its own self-aggrandizing perpetuation — we abandon good business practice and invite shenanigans.

I don’t expect the government to make a profit, it is a service organization meant to be self funding for critical needs, thus the true practices of free enterprise cannot apply.  Yet the basic behaviors and expectations of executives and managers that any responsible and passionate business owner or employer would demand must apply, or dysfunction will continue, and the business owners will suffer the consequences.  If you have ever been part of an enterprise where management allowed dysfunction to take over, you know how quickly the tables can turn and the potential devastating outcome.  It can happen quickly, without enough warning, and without a path to correction.

We all learn in grade school that the framers created a series of checks and balances specifically to ensure that one set of ideas did not permanently crush another.  However they did not design our legislative product development process so that it would bring stagnation and impasse, anymore than a business would want checks and balances to impede innovation and growth.  Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill showed us just a generation ago that we can have our cake and eat it too, so there is a proven model in recent memory.  We need to embrace that now or we all lose.

Good managers do not leave the most important problems to the last second.

Good managers appreciate the differences in the points of view around them and strengthen their outcomes with a mix of ideas.

Good managers talk to each other, not with poorly staged sound bytes to third-party forums to relay messages to each other.

Good managers put the enterprise and those they serve first, their teams above self-interest, and only accept reward when those conditions are met.

This isn’t hard, it is standard operating procedure for anyone who has ever worked in an important company role under time sensitive and otherwise impossibly difficult circumstances.

Demand better as an employer.  We deserve it.  We’re footing the bill.  This we have in common, all of us.