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April 10, 2006
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Right and Righteousness

Organizational leaders and, for that matter, family leaders, occasionally appear to be blindly wedded to or fixated on a certain decision, or certain course of action. Our kids may call us stubborn, our coworkers may call us single-minded or narrow-minded, but the basis of the criticism is the same Ñ a tenacious focus on a particular policy or direction.

Sometimes this comes wrapped up in sayings such as, "I have faith that this is the right policy" or "I believe in my heart that this is correct." Despite the counsel of friends, the warnings of advisors, or the carping of critics, the "I know I’m right" approach goes on.

At work, manifestations may include phrases such as "my way or the highway."

It is certainly true that there is great power and great value to the careful selection of a course of action and an unwavering support to move towards a goal. This is, in fact, often a way that great changes get made and implemented. Great changes mean moving aside fixed views that may have been around for many years. They may be enshrined in law, custom or accepted religious, cultural or scientific beliefs.

Anyone who dares challenge this existing paradigm is subject to skepticism and perhaps ridicule, threats or worse. Certainly in the 16th century, Martin Luther risked his life when he refused to back down. Hundreds of years later, the noble spirit of Rosa Parks led her to exemplify another model of sweeping change at great personal risk. Instead of refusing to sit down, she refused to stand up. Great changes are difficult to implement without some degree of protection against those who easily criticize but rarely stand up to lead or to offer hope.

However, there is a narrow difference that can exist between the tenacious adherence to a policy and an unwillingness to see the need to modify a stance. At the micro level, you may not want your daughter to stay out past midnight, but that can’t be rigidly enforced with a 19-year-old as it might have been with a nine-year-old.

Things change, things evolve, and any of us must be open to the circumstances that make policy modification or personal behavior changes not only appropriate, but sometimes necessary for success.

At what point do we realize in local government that continuing tax cuts just for the sake of tax cutting may look good and may help in the election du jour, but may erode public service capability over time? At some point those same anti-tax protestors will repaint their signs and T-shirts to complain about the lack of effective public service.

At what point will local governments realize that maintaining a municipal fire department in the current model with constant demands for ever more pension benefits, workers’ compensation "presumptions," and escalating salary and benefit demands will become harmful to the rest of public service? When will these issues merge to create the perfect storm of public policy dilemmas?

The same can be said of many policy issues in the national and local arenas, including the abysmal lack of a coherent, consistent national health insurance policy, issues of local growth control or the economy versus environment debate. At what point do we rethink policies that we hold dear and admit to ourselves, if not to others, that a change is in order?

Regrettably, for people that read or write articles like this, there is not one particular single prescription drug available to answer that question. Having said that, however, here are some thoughts about when the winds of change should be recognized. The first is when even the people you trust most, the people who have shown their loyalty, ingenuity and initiative in the past reach a point where they have the courage to come in for coffee and say excuse me, "Have you got a moment?"

The "have you got a moment?" moment is a key time when someone has something important, and maybe difficult, to express. This is a time for acute listening and reduced talking by the decision-maker. It is a time to appreciate that what may be offered as criticism may really be a great gift to the decision-maker who may otherwise not listen, or may not want to hear a loyal voice of dissent.

A portion of the Talmud says basically, "Find thyself a teacher." It could also be read as "find thyself somebody to talk to as a coach or mentor." Find someone with whom you can sit down and say, with trust and faith in their loyalty, "I have been following this path in the forest for many miles and I am not sure whether or not I have lost my way." That’s hard to admit and it’s hard to ask for opinions. But it is essential that all of us do that. This is true whether we are invincible teenagers or insulated presidents of major corporations.

Often our egos or the arrogance of success that we have enjoyed through most of our lives or careers gets in the way of being able to change a belief or a course of action even in the face of compelling reasons. The HR Doctor has often recognized hubris or arrogant pride as "public enemy #1" when it comes to great and caring public policy. We get in our own way. We are our own enemy when we live in a world of self-centered narcissism.

The best leaders are the ones willing to take counsel and, in fact, actively seek it out and pay attention to it. That certainly does not mean that you change your opinion every time someone suggests that the wind is blowing this way today or that way tomorrow. It does mean that you consciously and repeatedly ask yourself as a leader, "Do I have the courage to admit that there is a better way, that circumstances have changed, and that my actions and beliefs may not have evolved along with the circumstances?"

Finally, whenever a hard decision confronts us, there is a great and joyful relief when we openly acknowledge an issue instead of trying to hide it. When we consciously analyze our course of action and make a mid-course correction to a better path, there is a great personal relief and renewal.

When we finally acknowledge that a problem exists, accept responsibility for what needs to be done, explain it to others in a clear and compelling way without whining and without blaming, the result is that the great weight of an elephant is lifted off your shoulders. Freed from that lead-weighted back pack, we find that we are able to make better decisions, to sleep better at night, and be more joyful.

So, wonderful public administration readers and colleagues, take a stand with courage and vision. Sit down or stand up as the case may be, but don’t be blind to the fact that you may be right today under a certain set of conditions. Right should not lead to and should not be confused with a righteous inability to see and respond to change!

The HR Doctor wishes you all the best,

Phil Rosenberg


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