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.