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Jon Cowan
Non-profit leader

Jon Cowan

Jonathan Cowan is president and co-founder of Third Way, a think-tank of the progressive movement. In the Clinton administration, he served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

We are all 'slackers'

Q: This week's nuclear summit presents one of those difficult leadership challenge: focusing attention and resources on a low-probability problem that would be disastrous if it occurred. Global warming, 100-year floods, financial meltdowns are other examples. How can a leader fight the natural tendency among followers to put off dealing with what seem like such abstract and complicated threats?

In my 20s, I co-led an organization that sought to mobilize Generation Xers around the then-staggering budget deficit (actually less than one-quarter of this years projected deficit) and national debt. Dealing with deficits posed the classic "delay" challenge: The consequences of too much debt were both severe and remote, especially to our target audience of 18 to 30 year olds.

To overcome this leadership obstacle, we used three strategies. First, rather than leaving it abstract -- who really can imagine a budget deficit? -- we picked a clearly defined opponent and rallied young people around it (in that case it was profligate baby boomers). Second, we made it personal, spelling out exactly how large deficits would hurt their lives. And third, we appealed to deeper and motivating values, such as patriotism, i.e. Did they want to be the first American generation to allow their future to be destroyed?

That formula -- rally around a common foe, make it personal, and tap into deeper values -- can be used to engage people on many of the long-term threats we now face, from loose nukes to climate change to entitlement reform. After all, its not just the "slacker generation" that thinks only about today.

By Jon Cowan

 |  April 13, 2010; 6:06 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Jon, you propose an excellent plan for motivating support: "rally around a common foe, make it personal, and tap into deeper values".
For an even more refined approach, refer to "Rules for Radicals" by Saul Alinsky - a detailed roadmap for revolutionaries that is the obvious handbook for our current administration.

Posted by: frebo3 | April 16, 2010 10:47 PM
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