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Leadership Lessons From a Dysfunctional Congress

The government shutdown shows leaders exactly how they should not behave when faced with doubters.
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There are lessons to be learned from dysfunctional families.
 
Comparing our representatives to a dysfunctional family may be a bit flattering to Congress, but nonetheless there are some leadership lessons to be learned from their dysfunction.
 
In the final analysis, leadership is about moving agendas ahead. That is what we expect from our legislators. We expect some pragmatic political competence.
 
Obviously, this Congress is politically incompetent, but within its incompetence there are some leadership lessons to be learned.
 
1. Don’t stay with your base too long
 
You may have a great idea and your best friends may think it’s a great idea as well. These are your close allies and they may well be the base that will give you the traction to move ahead.
 
However, if you over-emphasize your base and put all your energy into making sure your base is cohesive and thinking the same way you are, then you may miss the point.
 
Putting too much emphasis on your base may convert them into a cult or a cabal, rather than a tactical coalition. 
 
Know when to roll out of your base. This is a lesson yet to be learned by the Republican Party.
 
2. Make only token gestures to your exact opposites
 
In all settings, you will face stone-walling naysayers who don’t support your agenda. These critics, for some deep-rooted ideological or personal reason, will always find you or your ideas totally objectionable. 
 
Even though the probability of converting them to your position is unlikely, they can’t be totally ignored. 
 
The trick is to make some token investment in these extreme opponents, without overplaying the resources and effort you’re willing to commit.
 
Don’t spend too much time with those you don’t have a chance of winning over.
 
3. Try to win the middle
 
In any organization, there is a core of individuals who understand that pragmatic adjustments and a one-step-at-a-time approach may be the best way to push an agenda. They are neither traditionalists nor revolutionaries. They play the middle. They are concerned with making tinkering improvements and coming to incremental agreements.
 
Without this core you will never move an agenda. It is this core that both sides of the aisle seem to forget. Don’t forget the pragmatists in the middle.
 
4. Know when not to negotiate
 
Not all situations are solved through negotiations.
 
Sometimes there is simply nothing to negotiate about. This may be a positive lesson learned from the current events.
 
When parties can’t even agree on the issues to be discussed, when everything is defined as a zero-sum game, it may be to one’s benefit to sit on the sideline until the game is redefined.
 
5. Don’t confuse short-term vs. long-term accountability
 
In the short-term, any leader, just like the members of Congress, feels most comfortable with those that think like they do. But at the end of the day, you're not accountable to the people who already agree with you. You're accountable to everyone in the organization. In Congress, leaders are accountable to the entire country. In business, you need to understand not just what your R&D department wants or what your supporters are clamoring for, but the long-term market dynamics. 
 
This is an essential lesson if you are going to survive and grow your position. Unfortunately, this lesson is yet to be learned by some members of Congress.
 
6. Keep your ego out of the game
 
It’s not really about you--it’s about the agenda. Pragmatic leaders understand how to differentiate their personal need for victory from the practical need to  achieve results.
 
A leader focused on his or her ego not only becomes obstinate, but actually perverts the reality in which they work.
 
Good or bad, these are some of the lessons from our current Congress. Unfortunately, with the government shut down and the debt ceiling looming, there will be more lessons coming.
IMAGE: Bloomberg via Getty Images
Last updated: Oct 2, 2013

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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