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Alaina Love
Leadership author

Alaina Love

Alaina Love is co-author, with Marc Cugnon, of The Purpose Linked Organization and co-founder of Purpose Linked Consulting.

Sandbox rules for politicians

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?

It is important to be clear that as of this date we have no valid evidence that the very disturbed Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged shooter of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other innocent people, was directly influenced by the ongoing vitriolic political rhetoric infusing our airwaves, social media and print media. That said, there is still much to be concerned about regarding the deterioration of leadership ethics in this country. Far too many examples of adults behaving badly in our political system are part of our daily media diet, from the recent censoring of Rep. Charlie Rangel for financial misconduct to Rep. Joe Wilson, who was punished last year for a breach of decorum when he felt compelled to call President Obama a liar during a nationally televised speech to Congress.

While Congresswoman Giffords fights for her life and while families of the other victims mourn their losses or pray for their loved ones' recovery, the debate about the most basic of our rights rages on. We live in a country that provides everyone with the freedom to speak, but I don't believe the founding fathers ever intended that right to include the freedom to lie, disrespect others or assassinate someone's character. Yet all too often that is what we witness among our supposed political leaders.

Real leaders would demand a different way of operating--one that includes the right to offer balanced, thoughtful opinions but also incorporates accountability for treating others with respect. It would also be an operating style that these leaders would emulate, making it clear that the rules apply to everyone.

The funny thing is that the very basics of the schoolyard sandbox apply even in Washington: NO KICKING, NO SCRATCHING, NO BITING, NO THROWING SAND and PLAY NICELY WITH ONE ANOTHER. How will our leaders ever solve the most complex challenges this nation is facing--from health care to jobs to national security-- if they fail to communicate respectfully, honestly and effectively?

Another factor fueling this issue is the seemingly insatiable appetite of the public for the mud slinging and muckraking of Washington politics. Thus far, this system of communication has worked on some level because we're tuning in; we're supporting networks, radio stations and publications that broadcast this rubbish; and on some level, the American public is buying in. We must own our share of responsibility for how our leaders behave, because some amongst us seem to enjoy the vitriol or use it as an outlet for our own suppressed anger.

If saner minds in Washington prevail, I would hope that we'll soon see a proposal for a very simple code of ethics for political leaders that addresses how they communicate with and about one another, and that holds them accountable to at least the standards established in grade school. However, if our political leaders truly want to address the war of words in Washington, a time-out in the chair facing the corner will not be enough. Sanctions for poor behavior will need to be established with severe enough consequences to influence everyone to adhere to the standards. Perhaps this more intentional approach to demanding ethical behavior among politicians would be a start toward righting our broken system. By creating a culture of accountability, politics as a whole might someday become a self-correcting entity.

And now that I think about it, maybe it really is true that everything we need to know we already learned in kindergarten.

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By Alaina Love

 |  January 11, 2011; 10:47 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Ethics , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Political leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: From rhetoric to reality | Next: This is about guns, not rhetoric


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Sandbox politics: this is sooo on the mark!! Great essay, and yet another sign that this gutter level debate could use a few good moms!

When I am posting on threads, and take a minute to criticize someone's trash talk, 9 times out of 10, I get this reaction:

"So and so did it first!!" "The other side does it, too!!"

At the sandbox, the etiquette generally works this way. Mom: "Ok, if Johnny threw sand at you first, then you need to tell him to stop it. If he doesn't stop it, you need to talk with a grown-up."

The answer is not : "Oh, okay! In that case, next time, smack him with a stick!"

Only in the current situation, Limbaugh, Beck, Savage (to a lesser extent Olbermann) have their rears parked in the middle of the sandbox and relish every fistful of thrown sand. It is not about policy nearly as much as it is about profit.

So the only answer I see is to grow the circle of grown-ups, and surround this gang of trash talkers, who are willing to assert some parameters for acceptable public behavior.

They should be toned down, not through censorship, but through pointing out what is being said (on both sides) and doing what we can to pull them out of the sandbox, with boycotts, petitions, letters to advertisers.

Most importantly, every mom in the country should make it a point to be talking to every other mom, sister, aunt, grandma, niece, cousin, friend, neighbor and co-worker about the problems we all suffer due to the gang of trash talkers in the national sand box.

There can be no let up or we are done for. One day, a real, genuine malicious demagogue (a Hitler or Stalin) type will show up, but we will not even find his rhetoric unusual.

Posted by: post-it2 | January 14, 2011 3:39 PM
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I feel compelled to point out that while mud-slinging is undesirable and a problem, muckraking is actually desirable. Mud-slinging is personally attacking an opponent. Muckraking is investigative reporting of messy and uncomfortable issues. I personally believe part of the solution should be more muckraking.

Posted by: jeffnn1 | January 13, 2011 4:14 PM
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What a great piece and thank you for saying that the case and the vitriol may not be related. So many people are jumping to point fingers that the facts seem to be lost in muddy waters. That said, we the people need to stand up and tell our politicians enough is enough. We’re tired of the vitriol. We’re tired of the rhetoric. We want real representation. They need to serve us. This goes for both sides of the aisle. This article (http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-improvement/what-is-rons-website-really-for) could really benefit many of our politicians these days. They do seem to forget they are in the customer service business and that we’re the customers not vice versa!

Posted by: Julie-Ann1 | January 12, 2011 9:56 PM
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The political pundits are arguing that the tragedy in Tucson is not associated with the bile being spewed in politics today and thus should not be a topic of discussion. I beg to differ. This is exactly what we should be talking about and solving by returning to the basic rules of civility outlined by Ms Love. Perhaps then we can begin the discourse about how someone so mentally disturbed could get his hands on a cache of weapons and set his sights on the innocent.

Posted by: MartinG1 | January 11, 2011 8:28 PM
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