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Jon Cowan
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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.

A failure to learn from

Q: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acted too quickly in removing Shirley Sherrod from her USDA job. How can today's leaders assess when to move quickly and when to hang back?

When I served as chief of staff at HUD, there were many times when we felt tremendous pressure to make fast decisions to demonstrate our decisiveness in the face of a serious problem. And we were reminded repeatedly of that basic leadership axiom - you'll often have to make decisions with less-than-complete information.

But in this instance, the team at USDA acted far too quickly and did not appear to ask even the most basic questions: What else did Sherrod say in the rest of the speech, and did it fundamentally alter the core point of the short video excerpt? Moreover, their first step - putting her on administrative leave - gave them more than enough time to dig more fully into the details and sort out an appropriate response. Sadly, this time, they fired before they aimed - a hard leadership lesson to learn, but a necessary one.

By Jon Cowan

 |  July 23, 2010; 6:43 AM ET
Category:  Failures Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"But in this instance, the team at USDA acted far too quickly and did not appear to ask even the most basic questions: What else did Sherrod say in the rest of the speech, and did it fundamentally alter the core point of the short video excerpt?"

This is why due process is so important--firing after due process is less likely to lead to backlash.

More importantly, context matters. We had a hotly contested US Senate primary in my state one year---2 competent, qualified candidates.

The candidate who thought it was "his turn" and how dare anyone run against him tried the "take this out of context and make the opponent look bad" approach--only with a written letter, not a video. Making it easy for a newspaper to print the whole letter in a "decide for yourself" adwatch sort of thing.

The attacking candidate "won" the primary--after a recount, by 330 votes statewide. And refused to apologize for the attacks, meaning half the voters in his party did not trust him. He lost in a close election (some thought both nominees deserved to have to endure a recount, but it was decided within several hours after the polls closed).

It would have been smarter for all sorts of people (in government, in the NAACP, not to mention journalists) if they had watched the whole video.

This is rumored to be a "revolutionary year". Already some incumbents have lost primaries.

But most people don't pay much attention to politics in the summer.

What if the independent voters rise up, declare they are tired of saying "independents believe..." as if people who think/ register that way act as a group instead of individuals?

What if people look at individual candidates instead of "generic ballot" nonsense?

What if people are impressed that the Obama folks reacted so quickly and apologized---and don't see it as Obama's fault that, as one person said on a Sunday show today, "Breitbart threw a firecracker in a crowded room and yelled fire!"?

What if the more reasonable people to the right of center start to shun the likes of Breitbart and candidates have to choose between the mainstream "I wouldn't allow my kids to behave that way, why should I accept such behavior from politicians?" (basically what Nicole Wallace said on one show)?

What if voters decide they want honest issue debate about specifics and are tired of those who seem to make a living polarizing the country? What if they started asking "OK, you are so smart, what makes you think 2 wars plus tax cuts and paying numerous contractors has less effect on the budget than needy people using government programs to help them get by?".

But that is asking public figures to think. Too many public figures did not think this through, they just reacted. As I recall, one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is being proactive rather than reactive.

Posted by: GHDEL | July 25, 2010 11:52 PM
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