Decisions at the Mahogany Table

In my naive, idealistic youth, I thought that decisions, especially important decisions, were made on the basis of the relevant facts. After all, why were we going to school, if not to learn how to determine the facts? Even more naively, I was convinced that somewhere there was a mahogany table around which people would sit and have informed discussions and make thoughtful decisions based upon these facts.

And most naively, I used to think that labels also mattered. We were right, and they were wrong. If only we could talk to them around the mahogany table, then they would see the light and the error of their ways. Truth and wisdom based upon the facts would prevail.

I couldn’t wait to grow up, to be in the real world, and to contribute to the decision-making process by discovering and presenting the facts. High school was, well so high school, and college, well sometimes it was just another version of high school for older kids. I couldn’t wait to make the world a better place and to sit at the mahogany table.

In the years that followed my naive upbringing, I had the opportunity to be involved in many decision-making processes and situations. I have been in charge of something for most of the past 40 years. I have run a program for the President of the United States, and I have sat in the Cabinet and Roosevelt Rooms in the White House. I have run a division of one of the nation’s largest corporations, and I have sat in many Board rooms. I have run a nonprofit foundation, as well as many projects and teams.

Yes, I have sat at many mahogany tables. And sometimes, there were informed discussions and wise decisions did get made. But, usually not around the table. And, usually not based primarily upon the facts. Once, I spent two years leading an effort that produced a 3-page decision memorandum for the President. Expecting to be called into the Oval Office for a lengthy discussion, I was crestfallen when the President made a few margin notes and simply accepted our team’s recommendations. No discussion; no mahogany table.

No, my fact-finding skills paled in comparison to the political lessons that I learned in high school student government and my other extracurricular activities. Managing and governing share a great deal in common with student government. The endless debates we had about whether the coke machine should go next to the boys’ gym or the girls’ gym – and now, there are unisex gyms – were training for any deliberative process. Bickering is bickering at any age and in any context. Labels frequently substitute for facts and thoughtful discussions at any age.

I’m older and wiser now. Labels don’t matter, and there is no mahogany table.

2011 – A Year of Renewal

Do you know anyone who is not happy to see 2010 fade away? In fact, do you know anyone who is not happy to see the whole past decade recede into the sunset? There seems to be a collective sigh of relief as we enter not only a new year, but also a new decade. Why is that?

Yes, we have had 9/11, two wars, an economic disaster, the housing crisis, unemployment, and a few other setbacks. But something else is wrong. The Gross National Happiness has gone down. When we entered the new century in the year 2000, most people were full of hope and anticipation for a better future. Now, those hopes have been dashed. Why is that?

Most people today are preoccupied with surviving the challenges of the moment, like keeping or finding a job, paying for health care, education, or food, or even overcoming the weather. We’re anxious about our own situation, and we’re terrified about our children’s future. Why is that?

We’ve been living in a fantasy world. We believed in our dreams, and we ignored our reality. Yes, a few people did get wealthier or otherwise became better-off in the past decade, but for most people the situation became worse. The rhetoric on all levels has now been exposed as wishful thinking, or worse, by the reality of our lives today. The fantasy cannot continue. We must face reality.

Our democratic system of government is broken. The greatest challenge of leadership is not to articulate grand visions for the future; it is to form the many consensus agreements required to get us there. That’s democracy; many ideas must be fashioned into actionable plans. The public must support the overall directions and the small details. Yet, we’ve lost the ability to agree on much of anything these days. It’s all arguing and shouting, which in the end will get us nowhere.

Probably, the hardest notion to accept is that our leaders cannot do this for us, and they cannot do it alone. Our leaders cannot forge a consensus, when the public opinion, the body politic, is so fractured. If our friends and neighbors, now including our Facebook friends and virtual neighbors, cannot agree, how can we expect our leaders to agree?

Civil dialogue, fact-based discussions of complex issues, respect for the opinions of others, putting labels aside, and even compromise, are the only way to make democracy work. No person or group can always prevail. No particular point of view is always right. As the song said, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.

We must start with ourselves. As many have said, we must be the change that we wish to see in the world. We must be what we want the other person to be. We must resolve to find common ground.

2011 can be a year of hope and renewal, for ourselves and our nation, for our friends and the world. We can do this, and our leaders will follow. In our democracy, We, the People, have the power.

It’s Time, America, to Civil-Up

The American political process is a disgrace. Not just because of the obscene amounts of money spent on elections – $4 billion in this recent midterm election. And not just because of the slogans and symbols, the simplifications and factual errors, that bombarded our eyes and ears, and consumed our communications. No, the true indignity was the absence of civility in the political debate.

Is this really the way we want to treat each other as we exercise our most fundamental right – the right to participate in free and fair elections? Is this the shining light of democracy for which our soldiers have fought and died?

The land of the free and the home of the brave have become the land of the shout and the home of the insult. Disrespect is everywhere – for elected officials and for political candidates; for public office and for government; and for others and for who we are as people.

We are America, and we are Americans. We are freedom, and we are a representative democracy. We invite differing ideas, and we respect free and open debate. For more than two centuries, we have held ourselves up as an ideal for others to emulate. Yet, now we are losing our way.

Can America get back on track? Of course, it can – but only if we restore respect and civility to public life and political discourse.

Yes, American politics can change – but only if YOU help lead the way.

Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – so WE, THE PEOPLE, must set the example that we want our leaders and our neighbors to follow. We must be the change that we want to see in American politics. We are the ones who must rekindle the lamp of dignified democracy.

We must put aside the labels that divide us. We must be thoughtful and polite as we discuss problems and seek common ground. Our leaders will follow, as leaders ultimately do, but we cannot wait for them. The challenges are too great.

We must provide a political safe haven for the thoughtful people who will truly lead us, and who will not just say what they think we want to hear. We must build a groundswell of civility. In this time of extremes, we must be the constituency of civility and moderation.

It is time for America to civil-up.