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Ed O'Malley

Ed O'Malley

A former state legislator and gubernatorial aide, Ed O’Malley is President and CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center, a first-of-its-kind training center charged with fostering large-scale civic leadership for healthier communities. He tweets at eomalley.

Bitter medicine

In response to the On Leadership question: Can Americans handle the painful truth about government budget deficits -- that getting them under control will require both tax increases and cuts in government services -- or will they reject any leader who dares to deliver it? What's a leader to do?

Give us the truth about the budget deficits. We don't want it, but we need it. We can handle the bitter medicine. We may not like you for it, but in time we will respect you.

Here are three simple and recent illustrations:

1) Kansas State University's upstart basketball coach, Frank Martin, has the utmost respect from his tenth-ranked Wildcats precisely because he gives them what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear. He is brutally honest with them and this inspires respect and confidence. The players know to improve they must swallow the bitter medicine Coach Martin offers (e.g. punishing practices, public articulation of individual and team weaknesses and fits of rage during games and practice when the team strays from execution).

2) A colleague recently attended a professional development workshop where the instructor told her, "You are way too smart to look so frumpy." My colleague was startled, but deep down, knew the comment was true. Unable to hide from the truth, she began an effort to improve her presence, requiring her to take care of herself in ways she had neglected. She too is taking the bitter medicine.

3) A university student was rambling on in class about the subject matter and concluded her remarks by casually saying, "Know what I mean?" The professor confronted her with the brutal truth and said, "Honestly, I never understand what you are saying." She was shocked, but deep down knew her ramblings were just ramblings. She took the bitter medicine too and is doing the hard work of being more conscious about how she articulates her ideas.

The President and Congress should take a cue from the coach, instructor and professor above. Leadership is about mobilizing people to do the work they would rather not do.

We can take the bitter medicine too. We don't want to, but we will take it. We would rather be told it will be easy. We would rather lip service be given to the deficit and then new spending programs unveiled that make us happy. We would rather have the good without the bad.

We prefer the pandering of elected officials, which occurs much more frequently than leadership.

But the bitter medicine - no longer living beyond our means - is what we know we need. Forcing America to make difficult choices is what leadership is all about.

By Ed O'Malley

 |  February 2, 2010; 3:28 PM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Bold truth, political suicide | Next: The health care imperative


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The truth is that yes, Obama inherited 1.3 Trillion deficit, but in ONE YEAR ALONE, has run up 1.4 Trillion for 2010, and proposes the about the same deficit for 2011.

Obama's on track to DOUBLE the deficit in five years and to triple it in TEN...and this is not including any new proposals, new entitlements, new programs (i.e. health care, cap and trade) - so any NEW spending will have to be added to those projected deficits.

These projected amounts do NOT include interest on the projected deficits or debt. American debt now stands at around 14 Trillion dollars.

Obama and the Democrats have decided that the TARP funds are their personal slush fund...the majority party has no morals, values, nor do they care about personal responsibility.

We need a moral leader with line-item veto power.

Posted by: easttxisfreaky | February 2, 2010 8:30 PM
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you're kidding, right? Any American politician who dared speak the truth, no matter how couched, would be immediately pilloried by the other side as a defeatist, as a wasteful "tax and spender," as god only knows what else.

That sort of candor works in a one-on-one setting where the person being criticized can be reasoned with. On a national scale, where politicians are marketed like toothpaste, creating vast facades and Potemkin villages around themselves, (Read here: John Edwards) it won't work. It's not possible.

Posted by: summicron1 | February 2, 2010 8:22 PM
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The politicians say that a cut in spending is a cut in spending, but it isn't. It's a reduction in a projected increase. Hence, you can be told that a million dollar cut is coming, but still see the budget for particular line items increase.

This kind of flim-flammery is what pushes me from ever wanting to vote again. It doesn't matter who is elected. The song remains the same.

Posted by: GSN1787 | February 2, 2010 7:49 PM
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Arnold Schwarzenegger urged California voters to pass Proposition 57 and Proposition 58 in the March 2, 2004, election, which authorized the sale of $15 billion in bonds and mandated balanced state budgets. Both propositions passed. The idea was this was the final "fix" needed to cure the California budget process.

Six years later - California needs to cut $20 billion from the current budget, and Gov Schwarzenegger is hoping the Feds will come up with some real cash.

My point - the entrenched special interests in California have bought our (mostly Democrat) state Legislature. The districts are gerrymandered, both state political partys only interested in holding on to power. There are many other factors too numerous to mention.

I wish the real world worked like Mr. O'Malley writes; but short of a viable centrist third party springing up, California will implode soon enough. America will follow our lead.

Posted by: shadowmagician | February 2, 2010 7:36 PM
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I agree that American society needs to wake up and realize that we're demanding a lot while remaining unwilling to sacrifice anything. Truth is, we need tax increases if we want to have any hope of solving many of our current problems.

If what you say is true, Mr. O'Malley, then try running for office on a platform of "more taxes, less service." I suspect you would find support among a few pragmatists, but you would lose in a landslide. Americans want more benefit for less cost. We're selfish like that.

Posted by: damascuspride04 | February 2, 2010 7:33 PM
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We could start by eliminating the billions upon billions in waste and fraud associated with our military budget. This includes weapon systems we don't need, bases that no longer serve a purpose, but also the billions in fraud perpetated by the "contractors" that hang like dingleberries off the underside of our military-industrial complex.

It happens. Everyone knows it does. Yet somehow THAT is the third rail of American politics -- as though if we crack down on the very real and serious problem of waste, we will Make America's Military Weak.

So instead we have the perverse spectacle of self-styled brave, noble souls tut-tutting that we should all just "man up" tighten our belts on genuinely vital human services that are already stripped to the bone.

But never mind that, we've got contractors to feed!


Posted by: alphahelix | February 2, 2010 7:27 PM
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American's are not ready for tough love and or the Truth. One because there is not a person in power who can be 100% believed or followed. Best case 50% of the country would follow any leader. The society we've fostered over the past 30 years doesn't believe they can actually do wrong or have to work as hard as possible to reach some goals. Most jobs are beneath them unless they are an immigrant who comes from a land where everyone goes hungry unless you work, steal or figure out a way to get out!

The concept of hard work, dedication, and committment to most 30's and under committing tos sing karoke on friday and saturdays to tune your voice for american idol, then dedicating all week to sit in line all day for a tryout on American Idol.

Posted by: jdb70 | February 2, 2010 7:15 PM
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Our "leaders" can start by picking the low-hanging fruit: consolidate or eliminate redundant federal programs, cancel unobligated appropriations, and reduce excess staffing, etc., before adding new entitlements and raising taxes.

When taxpayers get a sense that the Congress and the Administration are acting responsibly, tax increases may be seen as more rational. Also, the pool of taxpayers should be increased in order to return to some semblance of fairness.

Posted by: geraf-CO | February 2, 2010 7:12 PM
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Mr. O'Malley's comments are indeed naive. A basketball coach cannot be fired by his players and a professor cannot be fired by his students. Politicians don't feed the voters comforting lies for any other reason than that if they don't, an opposing candidate surely will. I know of no politician who has ever lost an election by telling the voters what they wanted to hear. I know of plenty - like Walter Mondale in 1984, for example - who lost elections because they refused to make popular but unrealistic promises. Ross Perot tried something similar to Mr. O'Malley's strategy in 1992. He came in third in a three-man race.

Posted by: continental46@aol.com | February 2, 2010 6:32 PM
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This is a decidedly naive perspective. The American people have been fed political pablum for too long - Republicans assert that we can have tax cuts and entitlements, while Democrats say that government will take care of us, but consciously shrink from proposing the bitter but realistic pill that ultimately, you have to pay for it.

Americans love the idea of goring the other guy's entitlement ox, while ferociously demanding that their own congressmen and women protect their own special interest - in other words, an almost pathological instance of cognitive dissonance.

I fail to see a useful parallel between the remarks of a brutally honest coach or college professional and the muddied, fragmented, ideological and pandering political process that now exists in this country.

The paradigm shift that would require Americans to face up to uncomfortable reality would require elected officials to commit political suicide. It won't happen.

Posted by: MillPond2 | February 2, 2010 5:52 PM
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Americans can handle the truth on most everything except when it concerns money, specifically our own money.

Of course we need to raise taxes and cut spending across the board, but the politicans that say they'll cut taxes and/or increase spending will always be elected over those who say otherwise.

Posted by: mhammel22 | February 2, 2010 4:50 PM
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