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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Get the messaging right

Question: It's now obvious that Homeland Security officials misjudged the public reaction to new airport security measures. What should leaders do when confronted with widespread backlash against a decision they still believe to be sound and in which they have invested considerable money and reputation? Should the TSA try to weather the storm or plot a strategic retreat?

The problem with the airport security measure is part of a larger problem, which has dogged President Obama. With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that President Obama should have had one message from Day 1.

The message: We have short-term problems that require immediate attention, and long-term problems that we must begin to address now but that will take significant time to deal with successfully. The short-term problems involve the solvency of banks and investment houses, as well as the need to save the automobile companies. We need to hold our noses and do these things. The longer-term problems involve health care, climate control, the balance between economic growth and regulation, and immigration. We can't solve these with one fell swoop but we must get started.

And so, with respect to airport security: In the short term, we need to deal with the possibility of targeted attacks by isolated terrorists, and that is why we have instituted the scans and hand inspection. Over the long haul, we need to identify those who are not a threat, using the most sophisticated measures, and focus all of our attention on the tiny minority of passengers who are most likely to be terrorists. So in the future, we will have a system that is as rational as possible, always recognizing that we can't be 100 percent secure. And here is the basic plan for achieving those goals in a reasonable period of time.

Placing the current, less-than-optional measures within a larger, rational context is the best way for leaders to proceed--whether they head airport security or the US government.

By Howard Gardner

 |  November 22, 2010; 1:57 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Political leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Worse than mere hubris | Next: Avoid backlash in the first place


Please report offensive comments below.

Great piece and right on the money! Our administration has had a terrible time getting its points and messages across. We need strong leadership that can clearly articulate the whys behind the TSA’s moves. America is breaking from what other countries are doing and the public wants to know why. As this piece (http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-education/positive-proactive-communication) points out, positive, proactive communication can improve loyalty. America needs this right now.

Posted by: Julie-Ann1 | November 24, 2010 9:05 PM
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