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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.

Different versions of truth

Question: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin continues to demand an end to collective bargaining rights for state employees even after winning their agreement on the benefit reductions he sought. These are the same state employees he must rely on to operate state government and implement his policies. How should he strike the balance between the urgent need to restore the state's fiscal health and his longer-term challenge of leading a large governmental enterprise?

We are witnessing a power struggle in Wisconsin in which both parties feel they are in a "must win" battle. Neither side is able to explore any other options at this point because they have made their current positions sacrosanct. The overarching issue of achieving fiscal health has been lost in the hard-line rhetoric and the reactionary legislative runaways. The original goal is secondary to winning.

With several exceptions, every other state has had to cut costs and find creative ways to raise revenue in order to be able to provide basic services. Priorities have had to be established and some critical needs have been targeted for cuts or temporarily put aside. None of these choices are without consequences; each state has to decide what losses it can afford to live with. Creating consciousness about the reality and the need for such tough decisions is a leadership responsibility. The governor of Wisconsin has done this. Involving those affected in the decision-making is important to success and makes dealing with the inevitable consequences a little less painful.

This is because being made to be a part of community in times of challenge creates the social capital needed to weather the change. Inclusion in developing solutions strengthens the commitment to endure through tough times and enables people to make sacrifices in the hope for a better future. It is human nature to want to have some degree of choice and control over our lives. Not only is it a leadership responsibility to help articulate a greater truth and to bring a level of enlightened awareness about the need for action, it is vital to involve those affected in a transparent and fair process. The governor has not been able to achieve this.

Some argue that the breaking point in Wisconsin was when it became clear that the governor had a different agenda than what he had publicly stated; that obtaining a balanced budget, while a very legitimate goal, is being used to destroy the unions. They argue that the process is neither fair nor just and that unions are being made the scapegoat for the state's financial woes. Others adamantly point to the fact that the majority of citizens voted for this governor and he is fulfilling his promise to get the state back to fiscal solvency. They add that the unions are one of the most powerful groups that have taken advantage of their positions in the system to negotiate agreements that served their members at the expense of a balanced budget or the needs of the larger public.

These two very different versions of truth are indicative of the gulf between the unions and the governor; and they point to the leadership challenge facing Wisconsin. Settling on either one of these narratives as the ultimate truth and basis for either urgent action or inaction will create a backlog of hostility and divisiveness that will poison the culture and the political process for years to come. Perceived and real injustice always induces clear and prolonged memories. The governor has the votes to win this fight in the short term; but if his real goal is reform of a system and sustainable change, then the relationships and trust needed to accomplish this goal are being destroyed.

Perhaps a visit to the mid-region of Wisconsin where, with the help of the Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County, citizens representing every sector are learning to address difficult issues using norms for civil conversation. They too are concerned about fiscal responsibility, but they want the kind of community culture in which their children and grandchildren will invest. Balanced budgets are community assets, and so is a sense of respect for and inclusion of all voices.

By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  March 1, 2011; 3:38 PM ET
Category:  Economic crisis , Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Managing with unions | Next: Governor Walker's tightrope walk

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When you come down to the real facts, you have to acknowledge that the WI problem is a state issue! The average home owner/taxpayer has a perfect right to accept the union demands for collective bargaining and whatever. In the end, the home owner/taxpayer of the state of WI will be paying more on real estate taxes for education, and that is his/her right to be willing to pay for the additional taxes created by union demands! Now if the people think that the federal government is going to make up the shortfall, that is another issue, and I for one will fight tooth and nail to prevent the federal government from bailing out the states!
Let each state resolve their own problems based on what they can afford, and what they demand from the educational system in their state! The federal monies will be in a bind for the next few years....I do not want any of my federal taxes to go for bailing out states that cannot resolve their own fiscal problems!

Posted by: SeniorVet | March 6, 2011 4:24 PM
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As a scientist, I can tell you that truth is objective. If it isn't, it's opinion. To say that these two sides have different versions of the "truth" is to ignore facts like Walker-"Koch" phone call. If people are so ignorant that they cast the Walker's blatant union busting (war on the middle class) as sticking to those lazy govt worker piggies at the trough, then that's not truth, that's just being too lazy to find out the fact and being too close minded to reach an impartial conclusion as to what's going on.

There is no "leadership challenge" in Wisconsin. There is just a guy who's been bought and paid for cutting sweetheart deals for his billionaire buddies.

To talk about this crises using the euphemisms and the nonsensical wishy washy phrases in this article does no service to anyone.

Posted by: astroboy_2000 | March 6, 2011 12:55 PM
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You are leaving out a very big point. The intractability is all on one side. The unions have agreed to all the financial demands. Walker, the Koch hired gun, is the one who won't negotiate. He needs his masters' permission to do that.
Your presentation is very unfair and not a true picture of reality.

Posted by: guyachs | March 4, 2011 9:41 AM
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We just escaped a similar situation here in California -the electorate decided for Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown over Meg Whitman. Meg in her endless commercials was for eliminating 40,000 state government jobs and outsourcing prisoners to Texas. It certainly seems as though there was a national anti-union strategy.

Posted by: shadowmagician | March 2, 2011 6:50 PM
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You state: "Balanced budgets are community assets, and so is a sense of respect for and inclusion of all voices." But this isn't about balanced budgets -- Gov. Walker's budgetary requests were agreed to by the unions -- yet, he insists on taking away their collective bargaining rights. The real issue is not the budget, the right of the worker to be heard at his employer's table. That's what 100,000 people protested on Monday Feb. 28th, and probably will continue to protest. Gov. Walker has made it clear: he wants the unions out.

Posted by: jrh310 | March 2, 2011 6:56 AM
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Katherine is is put out on your Blog that you are a senior at a leadership consultancy with a distinguished career. How then is nothing being made of the ethics of this Governor from Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who has shown the world that he is a "bought" man, owned by the special interests of the rich personified by the Koch brothers. The fact that they can now legally pour money into his coffers does not make it right. What about his character as an elected leader, the shame he brings upon Wisconsin and its people, what role model is this, and last but not least how does he explain all this to his kids. Have we all gone crazy - or is has there been some reprieve of honesty, accountability, and responsibility not only in public office but in life too. Are not you offended by this? God don't say "oh well!", I am lost enough in this new age of political ego's and the country's honor sinks and sinks.

Posted by: etartar | March 1, 2011 10:38 PM
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