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January 1, 2012

Step Up or Get Out of the Way

“All organizations are perfectly aligned to get the results they are currently getting.”

—Arthur Jones, inventor of Nautilus exercise machines

For our elected officials in Washington, D.C., that has never been more depressingly true. The legislative process, rhetoric to the contrary, is not at all about shaping public policy and solving tough problems. These days, making law in the nation's capital is primarily a chess match to be won or lost.

At one time, our senators and House members were able to overcome often-bitter philosophical differences and attempt to solve seemingly intractable social and financial problems. But now, the object of the game is to do as little as possible.

The contrast with how successful business leaders address and manage their most serious problems is stark.

In the face of serious long-term economic and social challenges—a broken federal tax system, stubborn debt and a failing educational system, to name a few—we face an endemic leadership vacuum in Washington. It is a destructive flaw that would be intolerable for very long in business.

The seasoned legislative tacticians who control Congress do not have to operate as a responsible business manager would. Our senators and representatives are successful when they offend as few of their core voters and major campaign contributors as possible. They understand their political survival is more assured if they can appear to be solving problems while doing very little that is substantive. They are successful because they decline responsibility, delay essential action and ask the next generation to do what they cannot. “Kick the can down the road” is the operating methodology of Congress.

No effective business leader could get away with such cowardice.

Take Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Harry Reid (D-Nevada), technically the most powerful people in the Senate. These men have no bold vision for America, and little ability to communicate and effectively rally their caucuses. McConnell and Reid, with roughly 50 years of combined Senate service, are fluent in Robert's Rules of Order and their chamber's arcane rules and customs. They keep their jobs, not by showing any notable talent for intelligently analyzing social and economic problems and formulating realistic and perceptive solutions. They have their jobs because they know how to stop legislation, or delay it endlessly.

This is no more apparent than in Congress' inability to pass a budget. At this writing, the federal government has been operating for more than 1,000 days without one, a length of time that surely shocks managers of non-governmental enterprises. For private-sector leaders, running an operation without a budget is unfathomable—and rightfully so. Sen. Reid, among others in the Senate, admits they only move at the last minute and in the face of crisis. They admit, too, that as with all incumbents they resist and block any change.

High-impact chief executives, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of failing to resolve their most important operational, marketing and budgetary problems. They must think strategically, embrace change constantly with programs like lean and continuous improvement. Otherwise, competition eats their business and they get replaced.

No executive worthy of his or her job could get away with the congressional brand of procrastination and careless decision making.

When we talk about running the country like a business this is what we mean: Step up. Be accountable. Care about the enterprise you are running. Earn your compensation and the trust of your employees, clients, customers and shareholders. Do the right thing. Or get out of the way of those who will.