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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Respect the rights of those who serve us

Question: Vitriolic political rhetoric is on the rise for one simple reason: it works. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, what can political, business and community leaders do to change the political dynamic so that demonizing opponents is not a winning strategy? How do we end the rhetorical arms race?

The shootings in Tucson struck with surprise yet somehow seemed tragically familiar. While the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made headlines, six people died, including a judge and a nine-year old girl. Giffords was critically wounded doing her duty: speaking to her constituents.

It is easy to ascribe political motives to the shootings. After all, our history has been shaped by assassinations of presidents. Judged by what passes for political discourse--with partisans on both sides hurling invectives--it would be tempting to blame extreme partisanship for the tragedy. That would be sad if true. Ms. Giffords is a conservative Democrat, a gun-rights supporter and, as her friends and colleagues said on Meet the Press, she is one who sought to build bridges not burn them.

Speaker John Boehner was wise to say, "An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve." Partisanship has its limits. So what are the alternatives?

First, respect people in public office. Politicians make easy targets for vitriol as well as ridicule. Sure, they may say things we don't agree with, but that does not excuse us from calling their motives into question. Most politicians I know spend lives that few of us would envy. They work long hours, spend evenings at political or community gatherings, and spend time asking (sometimes begging) for money.

Second, understand the dangers. Those who run for political office already run the risk of having their lives opened to public scrutiny. Having their public safety at risk too would be a tragedy. We need men and women of good intention, and all political persuasions, to feel they can run for office.

Third, hold people accountable for their words. When people in public life can say whatever they want--or post it on the Internet--without fear of contradiction, it fuels prejudice and hatred. As the saying goes, we are all entitled to our opinions; we are not entitled to our facts. Failure to distinguish between the two fuels hyper-partisanship and its resulting fear, prejudice and hatred.

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration. He was struck down by an assassin, and so the words of his inaugural address should give us pause. "United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do--for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder."

Those words were addressed to America's allies, but they could apply equally to us today. Divided we invite hostility. United we can find solutions.

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By John Baldoni

 |  January 11, 2011; 10:22 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Political leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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