The months-long debate on deficit reduction, which culminated in the Jan. 1 Congressional vote to raise taxes and avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, has provided us with numerous examples of failed leadership. Those in positions of leadership or whose work includes developing leaders can take away many simple, but important, lessons.
One of the most important things a leader must do is articulate a vision and specific, measurable goals that, if achieved, will lead to that vision. I've listened carefully and read extensively, but I still have no more than a vague idea of President Barack Obama's vision, or that of our Republican leaders. What do they want this country to look like in 10 or 20 years?
Some might point to party platforms or budget proposals as visions. A good vision is a clear statement that can be explained to a person of average intelligence in a one- to two-minute elevator speech. It is not an unintelligible mountain of paper that only a policy wonk could love.
The president has uttered some platitudes. He wants America to be a place where "everyone gets a fair shot." So do I, but what does that actually mean? It isn't actionable. Republicans might say it means highly limited government and individual freedom and responsibility. I think the president envisions a pretty big role for government in ensuring the "fair shot."
Good leaders develop a clear vision that they communicate concisely and often. They constantly seek buy-in from stakeholders by explaining why the destination they envision is a good one. When a vision is clear, everyone can evaluate every goal, program and decision by asking one question: "Does this get us closer to our vision?"
Neither political party has given us a clear vision that we can all understand.
We could possibly excuse the lack of vision if our leaders were at least giving us some relevant, clear, measurable goals. The debate we are having in this country is a debate about how government spends money and where it gets the money it spends.
The money government spends comes from only two places. One is our economic output or gross domestic product (GDP), a percentage of which government takes in the form of taxes. It is the output of businesses and the people who work in those businesses. The other is borrowing, which must be kept within limits we can afford.
So a relevant, clear, measurable goal would be government spending made up of some clearly defined, sustainable percentage of GDP, including a sustainable amount of debt service to cover any borrowing. Without a clear goal, we are adrift. We have spent months debating the irrelevant — the definition of "wealthy" — and the immeasurable — "fairness."
It is easy to pick on the politicians, but I see fuzzy goals in businesses all the time. "Improve," "reduce," "increase" and "develop" are frequently used action verbs that don't mean much if they aren't relevant and tied to something measurable.
It is next to impossible to get people to rally around a goal that they don't see as relevant or to drive a team toward a goal when progress and success cannot be measured. Smart leaders don't make those mistakes. They quantify improvements, reductions, increases and other outcomes, and they place them in the context of time.
Another leadership failure in our deficit debate has been allowing and even promoting the use of confusing metrics to manipulate opinions. Read carefully: When politicians talk about deficits, which are the bad results of their past actions, the timeline is one year. When they want to take credit for a spending cut or a tax increase and its impact on the deficit, the timeline is 10 years. That is not an accident. It makes their messes look small while their puny efforts to clean up the messes look big.
None of our leaders has stepped in to stop this manipulation. The recent epic battle over taxes will result in about $60 billion in new annual revenue, while future annual deficits are projected in the range of $800 billion to $1 trillion. When the data share a common timeline, it is easy to see that if we want to minimize deficits, we need serious and deep spending cuts.
This, too, happens in business settings. Managers often try to dress up bad numbers by manipulating timelines or baselines. Good leaders ask questions and drill down through data to ensure that timelines and baselines are consistent and relevant to the issues at hand. They use numbers clearly and concisely to communicate goals and monitor performance.
Basic leadership principles are not complex. The best leaders build consensus around a vision. They talk about it constantly. They create clear, relevant, measurable goals that lead to the envisioned outcome. They communicate and measure progress with appropriate, easily understood metrics.