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Marty Linsky

Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

What's your piece of the mess?

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?

Each of us is part of the system, part of the community that created the current reality that resulted in those horrible few moments at that Safeway northwest of Tucson.

Hyperbolic politicians and the media and gun laws may or may not have contributed, and we can happily and righteously engage in public debate about whether and how to "fix" them. But the only variable in the current reality over which we can reasonably assume to have some control is our own behavior.

What have you done or not done, said or not said, that contributed to an atmosphere in which Jared Lee Loughner was apparently moved to plan Giffords' assassination? How have you intervened in the political process? What campaigns have you declined to contribute to, and which ones have you supported? What incendiary language have you used publicly or privately in criticizing people or positions different than yours? How have you treated people whose views you think are awful? How have you fed your own need for affirmation in a way that adds to the polarization in our society?

The legal system will deal with Loughner.

But the opportunity for leadership is here for each of us. Screaming and yelling at each other, or finding self-righteous comfort in wringing our hands with like-minded people, will perpetuate the current reality. I worry that there will be too much policy angst and too little change in behavior, including, particularly, lowering the vitriol in the debate. Best as I can tell, we are already into heavy demonizing of "the other" in the aftermath of the tragedy.

What will you do now so that in your own way you will try to move the current reality? How will you change?

The only way that deep change can take place is if each of us does something different tomorrow than we did yesterday. Rather than continuing to rail against your favorite bogeyman or bogeywoman, figure out what you can do that might curb their excesses.

It's not an easy question. Any new practice, any adaptation any of us makes, means giving up something that we have been doing up to now.

For me, and these are just tentative thoughts, I am going to put my money and my mouth behind more people who behave responsibly, people who my mentor Elliot Richardson called "radical moderates". The moderation he was talking about refers to centrist ideology, but also to a way of being in the world: passionate but not vitriolic; an awareness of the complexity of the issues ahead and the challenges we face; acknowledging the legitimacy of other points of view; and courageous resistance to the pressure to support simplistic, short-term, crowd-pleasing approaches that avoid the tougher choices.

The money part is easy. I will double my campaign contributions from here on out, looking for candidates from both parties and across the ideological spectrum who embody that way of being in the world.

Second, the words. Late this spring, I begin a column on leadership for State Legislatures Magazine. I will look for and publicize legislators who exercise leadership in this way. I will continue to post on this blog, and on the Cambridge Leadership Associates website, stressing those values. And I will push forward in writing the book I have been working on for, well, too long to mention, about understanding and navigating the politics of everyday life, which may help some people be more effective, less frustrated and less likely to resort to anti-social behavior.

Third, in the internal dynamics of our firm and in my work with clients, I will be less strident in advancing my own views and more sensitive to the risk of driving people to the margins by my own behavior.

It's a start.

How about you?

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By Marty Linsky

 |  January 11, 2011; 7:29 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crime , Crisis leadership , Ethics , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Political leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Making the case for civility | Next: A glass ceiling, by any other name...


Please report offensive comments below.

Great commentary about the role personal responsibility plays in all this.

The raw state of our verbal exchanges cannot be stopped through bans on words or symbols.

We could all stand to be guided by good conscience, and work to be the adult examples of responsibility and mutual care & respect 9 year-old Christine assumed were all around her.

Posted by: post-it2 | January 14, 2011 2:19 PM
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