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.