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Katherine Tyler Scott
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Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

Obama's 'Sophie's choice'

Question: In a high-stakes game of political chicken, President Obama appears to have bowed to Republican threats to block the extension of tax cuts to the middle class--and all other legislation--unless a similar tax cut for high-income households was also included. Is this realistic bipartisan compromise after a sobering election, or is it a sign of weak leadership?

When we train leaders to negotiate, we always tell them that they must know what they can do without ever coming to the bargaining table. They need this knowledge because it is their "walk away " if, after they have bargained in good faith, the deal being offered doesn't meet their critical interests. Obama's "walk away" was a form of Sophie's choice to him: Should he allow the tax cuts to expire and leave millions of Americans in an even more precarious financial state or support legislation that includes what he firmly believes is unjust?

What we can surmise after two years is that one of President Obama's values and primary interests is fairness. He abhors placing an undue tax burden on Americans whose income and survival is dependent on day-to-day labor. This interest in being fair can be seen in much of the legislation he has put forth and supported.

The Republican leadership's stated interest was to avoid another economic undertow that would pull everyone under as it threatened to do in 2007. Their "walk away" was to allow an increased tax and to deny unemployed Americans an extension of benefits, rather than exempt the wealthiest from a tax cut. There was no shared interest in fairness; any tax increase will hurt those with the least resources.

Another lesson we teach leaders is to identify common interests and then generate as many options as possible to meet them before deciding which ones best meet the interests. The entrenched partisan perceptions about the reasons for economic stability remained an obstacle to attaining common ground and to creating innovative solutions to move us toward financial health. The result is a legislation that will cost American taxpayers far more than what will be gained in the short term. Those with wealth will have more wealth; those surviving from paycheck to paycheck will hang on by a thread; and those still seeking employment today will see their temporary safety net quickly becoming frayed.

The very issue that dominated the campaign of most Republicans--the growing budget deficit--has been set aside.

Had the president opted for the tax cuts to expire, the American people would suffer through the unvarnished reality of an unfair system of taxation that has long been in need of reform. He chose not to do this on principle, but it ended up violating another principle he campaigned on in order to avoid this. Perhaps the painful choice might have awakened Americans to face the reality that they are being treated as pawns in the playing of a shell game, a game that is trotted out when it suits the interests of those campaigning for reelection. The public should not accept such blatant manipulation or tolerate being held hostage by power plays and positional bargaining. This legislation is neither bipartisan nor optimum. Neither party achieved what they could have achieved: a compassionate and fair solution that would not further jeopardize American economic security or plunge us further into debt.

If we can learn to elect leaders who negotiate on behalf of the multiple interests of all Americans, we will have leaders we can believe in once again.

By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  December 8, 2010; 10:05 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Economic crisis , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I wish Ms. Scott would provide her definition of "fair', the central theme of her comments. I suspect it would be something akin to "equality of outcome", meaning that everything would be unfair unless it results in financial equality for all. That's a remarkably naive view of a world that never has, and never will exist. The exception would be places where equality, in the form of everyone being worse off, has been imposed by dictatorial governments.

Posted by: jcasteele | December 12, 2010 10:00 AM
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Ms. Scott uses some variation of the word "fair" multiple times in her comments. It would be helpful if she would define what she means by "fair." I suspect that many of us would see her idea of "fair" as something more along the lines of "equalization", meaning that everything is unfair until everyone is financially equal. Noble, but naive beyond belief, sentiment.

Posted by: jcasteele | December 12, 2010 9:32 AM
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