Archives for the month of: January, 2011

Last weekend I led a candidate training program run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. It is a bipartisan four-day session that brings experts in all the important aspects of campaigning — planning, fundraising, message development, communication, GOTV, and more — and wraps it all in a framework of ethics. (I helped design the program, which is unique in the nation and produces successful candidates.)

In the wrap up session at the end, I did something a little different than I normally do. As the days unfolded, I had been noticing many students (all first- or second-time candidates) resisting some of the advice they were getting. Even more interesting, some of the most-repeated advice was the advice most strongly resisted.

For instance, most consultants repeated that the best thing for a local candidate could do is to knock on doors. Yet many students would later make plans about attending large events or meetings, talking with press, and other things — almost anything but knocking on doors.

I began to realize there was a list of things that people just don’t want to do that was behind this resistance. This is not criticism of the students. I believe these are natural things that most people would rather avoid. It’s just that, in the campaiogn world, they are necessary.

So I repeated the list to the group. Here it is:

  • Ask for money for individuals
  • Do in-depth homework and really know issues
  • Work very hard
  • Research ones’ self and face shortcomings
  • Knock on doors and talk directly to voters
  • Give up control of the campaign to a campaign manager
  • Feel anxious or uncomfortable (especially speaking in front of people)

This relates to Seth Godin’s “lizard brain.” That’s the part of your brain that paralyzes you with fear, distracts you, and tells you that you don’t have to out in all that work.

I have very high hopes for this group of candidates. There were a number of real stars. And I got the sense that once these areas of resistance were named, they would be much easier to work against.

I am sitting in a speech by a former state delegate of Virginia, speaking at an evening session of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership’s Candidate Training Program. She’s talking about the qualities of leaders.

She identified three statements that can help any leader foster better relations, better understanding, and better results. That is, foster great civility.

These statements are:

Why do you think the way you do?

I don’t understand what you just said.

I think you might have misunderstood me.

These are things I plan to remember.

Tomorrow, I will be leading a four-day candidate training program with the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. More on that program here.

The program is an ethics-based soup-to-nuts campaign school, and I provide the ethics training piece. My bit is part lecture, part case study, and part small group exercises. I thought you might be interested to look at one of the hypothetical scenarios I developed for use in this (and other) programs.

The following scenario is based on a real event. See if you can guess which one. More important, see if you can answer what I ask students to answer: In this story, who has an ethical dilemma, when do they have it, and what is it? There is more than one answer.

All The News That Fits

Bill Jones is an investigative reporter at the Fallswood Bee, one of the major metropolitan daily newspapers in a Midwestern state. It is October of a presidential election year, and the state is considered an important “swing state.” Many see this election as pivotal and emotions are high. The Bee’s editorial pages have endorsed the challenger.

American rock legend Freddy “Snake” Smith has planned a brief tour to raise money and support for the presidential challenger. There is a stop planned for Fallswood in the second weekend in October, to be held at a venue in an area of town that many consider “tough.”

Janice Frederick is Editor of the Fallswood Bee. Concerned for the nonpartisan reputation of her newspaper, she issues a memo one week before the concert. “To all Weekend, General Assignment, and Political Reporters,” she writes. “Please be reminded that the Bee’s ethics policy bars Bee reporters and editors from ‘activities that conflict with your status as objective news professionals.’ This includes concerts that are held as political fundraisers.”

Come Monday after the concert, editor Frederick has a nagging hunch. She asks a Bee reporter who lives near the concert hall, Karen Archer, whether she knows of any Bee reporters who attended the “Snake” Smith concert. Archer is a good friend of Jones and works with him on various stories. She says she saw Jones walking on the sidewalk in front of the concert hall with his wife. Jones, when asked, says he did see the “Snake” Smith show. His wife, a freelance rock and roll writer, needed to attend for an article she was working on, and asked him to come along to provide a sense of safety in the rough neighborhood.

Frederick suspends Jones from the newspaper for three days for violating the Bee’s ethics code after being explicitly reminded not to. Jones contests the suspension to publisher Frank Shanahan, saying that, as an investigative reporter, the memo did not apply to him because it referred to other kinds of reporters instead. Frederick says that’s irrelevant, as the ethics code applies to all reporters, not just those she named in the memo. The issue has garnered unwelcome attention from many quarters: other reporters are threatening to strike; the incumbent’s political campaign is calling “foul;” and the press trade journals are watching Shanahan’s decision because it is considered unusual for a publisher to overturn actions by editors as this impairs journalistic objectivity.

I am traveling today, so rather than post a lengthy article, I’d instead like to point you to a friend’s piece from earlier this year.

One of my favorite thinkers on public life (and a good friend and colleague), John Creighton, wrote a wide-ranging essay as the new year turned about the mood of America. He suggests that, in addition to some of the long-standing core concerns that Americans express for security, control, and meaning — we add “balance.”

John makes an excellent case and I urge you to read his entire thoughtful article.

Here’s an excerpt:

The first three qualities – security, control and meaning – tend to develop as a package.  As a person establishes personal and financial security, she also gains a sense of control over her life.  We have expression to reinforce the importance people place on security and control – for instance, “Everyone is a king in his own home.”  Public policy often reinforces these values, too. . . .

In many ways, Americans have come full circle since World War II.  We have enjoyed riches and opportunities unprecedented in history.  Yet, at the end of a long run, we crave the same things people have always wanted: security, control (freedom) and meaning, now, leavened with a healthy dose of balance.

What’s different is that we must learn to achieve these lifestyle aspirations in a context unknown to our parents and grandparents.  The structures of work, learning, socializing and many other aspects of daily life that defined the lives of generations of Americans are quickly fading away.

Time, geography, and social norms, for instance, once forced healthy limits upon our consumption. Now it is possible to instantly satisfy nearly any legitimate need and frivolous whim at any time – 24/7/365 (a set of numbers seldom if ever used in this way until the rise of the internet).  The ability to gain instant gratification will not go away.  Instead, we must learn to strike balance in our lives with temptation lurking on our shoulder, incessantly whispering in our ear.

Thanks for an important contribution, John.

Let me just get something off my chest. There are two words whose current common usage I can’t stand.

Those words are “about” when used as a weasel-word substitute for “is,” and “around” when used as a weasel-word substitute for “about.” Both transgressions are often committed by otherwise intelligent people.


First up, “about.” This is deployed in the service of a definition, apparently when the writer is unsure what the definition in question is. Here’s a good example:

“Leadership is about listening to your colleagues.”

Note that the first part of that sentence, “leadership is . . . ,” promises us a definition. This hope is dashed immediately with the “about” which makes the sentence actually mean “leadership appears to have something to do with.” Too often, this construction is used not as a way of qualifying or extending some concept that has already been defined (which is a usage that would work) — it is instead treated as if it is the definition.

When I read that something is about something else, I am immediately suspicious that the writer is not sure what they really want to say.


Now, let me come to the rescue of the poor word, “about,” which has been kicked to the curb in hifalutin discourse by a strange construction using the word “around.” Like this:

“My work is around the ethnographic taxonomies of indigenous peoples.”

My friends in academe seem the most common transgressors. Here again, the word seems designed to give the writer a little bit of room, as if they are not exactly sure what their work is about and so would rather tell us what it is in the vicinity of.

Thanks, I just had to get that off my chest.

Happy Friday!

My friends know that I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the iPhone to finally come to Verizon. I refuse to put up with AT&T’s network problems.

Up to now, I have been happy with my Motorola Droid (I am a big-time Google guy) but in hindsight I have to admit it was always a stopgap while I waited for the iPhone.

Well, now the iPhone is coming, and Verizon has finally dropped the first commercial for it. So, here’s a little diversion to whet your appetite:

You might be surprised to know the the Super Bowl is one of the largest events to spur demand for the sexual exploitation of children every year. According to

Texas Attorney General Abbott is taking a stand and has prepared a task force to identify and respond to traffickers who plan to sell children at the Super Bowl.  However, it is not enough to expect law enforcement and victim advocates to bear the entire burden of responding to this issue, which is expected to include many victims.  In support of the efforts of the task force, we are requesting the Super Bowl Host Committee embrace a proactive approach with community members by endorsing the “I’m Not buying It” campaign, which would raise awareness and deter the buying of children during the Super Bowl.

You can help by signing the petition, or directly supporting the Traffick911 “I’m Not Buying It” campaign.

Watch this video to learn more:

Natalie Grant and Tenth Avenue North PSA for Traffick 911 from Nate Bernard on Vimeo.

[UPDATE: I initially, erroneously, said the Super Bowl was “the single largest event.” Thank you to my frien Tim Burgess for pointing out my error.]

As many of my readers know (as well as friends who aren’t readers), I have been working independently since 2003. Since it is primarily just me, I have not found a need to rent separate office space. Our house is large enough that there’s a room I use as my office.

Thing is, it is also the room I use to hold much of my fitness equipment. It’s also the room I use for recording and mixing music. And . . . it’s the room I get dressed in. (Like many couples, only one of us gets to use the in-bedroom closet.)

So, over the years, with so many different functions that this one room has been performing, you can imagine how much stuff has accumulated. Finally, as the new year dawned, I decided I could take it no more. I went corner by corner, throwing out (literally) anything I had not touched for the last 12 months I was ruthless. It was glorious.

You are probably wondering what my space looks like now. Well, here you go:

My main office headquarters:

Click for full size

And here is my “studio,” where I work on music and mix recordings:

Click for full size

Now I just have to do the same to the rest of the house!

My friend Cindy Cotte Griffiths wrote a piece as the year began that holds an excellent lesson. She tells a story of a project her young son was working on. Instead of trying to add a whole bunch of elements, he wanted to see how few elements it would take te get his task done.

He was disappointed that he couldn’t get it done with just one piece, he needed at least two. Here’s how Cindy tells it:

“Recently my son told me “You can’t do it with one.” I was remembering a visit to the American History Museum more than six months earlier. He was talking about his attempt to attach magnetic objects on a ramp in order to direct a ball into a hole in the hands-on science exhibit.

I was delighted he remembered because at the time I stood there marveling at his minimalist approach.

For over an hour, every other kid immediately proceeded to add as many gadgets as possible to the ramp. More and more and more, without even checking if their system worked.

When my son walked up, he was the only one to remove all the pieces and try with one. Only one. No matter what he did, it didn’t work so he tried two.”

What a great thing to remember.

I am in the midst of developing an agenda for a meeting, and I know that my own advice to myself is usually just to keep agendas as short as possible. But, when you’ve got a whole day to fill, you get worried, and you start to add in this and that until your agenda looks good on paper. You want others to know you put effort into it, so you add more.

It’s a discipline to keep to about one subject for every 90 minutes. But I am going to do it.

I’ll see if I can use the bare minimum, starting with just one thing, and build from there only if necessary.

As people wring their hands over the “toxic” rhetoric swirling throughout public life, a proposal from Colorado Senator Mark Udall has been gaining traction and winning approving nods from The Concerned Elite. The idea? At the upcoming State Of The Union address on January 25, don’t seat Members of Congress by party but mix them up.

This idea, originally proposed by Third Way one week ago, seeks to end the spectacle of one side of the audience standing and applauding while the other sits in stony silence. The intended result is harmony, or at least a scaling back of partisan tension.

I know that many people I respect are in favor of this. However, I think it’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — a futile endeavor that distracts from the real problem.

In the first place, it will actually benefit Democrats by making it appear that the whole room is standing in applause at certain points rather than just half. In the second place, it seems foolish to think that making Members switch desks as if they are wayward elementary school children will make the class run any smoother.

The Real Problem

A more important flaw, though, is that the problem is not that we disagree — it is that we express our disagreements in ways that are disagreeable. Everything in public life feels as if it is a game of one-upsmanship and advantage-seeking.

One key way that this plays out is in the annual game of applause lines in State Of The Union addresses. At least since the Johnson administration, it has been a tradition to clap for the things that your party likes, and remain stonily silent at the things your party doesn’t. (So Johnson got notable stony silence at his mention of the Civil Rights Act.)

Now it has become tradition to interrupt the speech repeatedly, and part of the journalistic coverage involves counting these interruptions and timing them, as if the energy with which the party faithful express support for their own positions reflects something other than the energy of self-interest.

All this clapping, and the focus wasted upon it, seems to me to diminish the importance and value of the State Of The Union. A better initiative, I would propose, is for all Members to agree not to clap. Let the President give the annual update uninterrupted. Let the American people hear it in full, without the necessity of knowing how much the two sides wish to express their agreement or disagreement (save that for the spin room afterwards).

(Photo credit: Flickr user ‘dvs’.)