As the federal government approaches the debt ceiling limit with Congress having no workable plan to either raise the ceiling or cut federal spending, I have been thinking about the humorist Will Rogers' observation on the government. On more than one occasion, Rogers observed that, "Congress ain't nothing but hired help."
What if the electorate actually treated politicians like hired help? What if members of Congress, senators and the president were hired like most other employees? Would the quality of leadership improve?
As I considered these questions, I thought about the many hiring decisions I had made. Having done a fair amount of hiring over the course of my career, I believe that three things are critical to any successful hiring decision.
First, it is important to clearly define what the employee is expected to do. Virtually anyone conducting a recruiting effort develops some outline of job expectations. A common mistake is to draft a comprehensive wish list that no single person is capable of satisfying. Successful hiring managers are able to distill necessary qualifications down to a handful of critical factors that determine the difference between success and failure for the employee.
Second, it is critical to strip personal preferences out of the hiring process. Otherwise, you will fill the organization with people who share similar viewpoints and lifestyles and can only see issues in one way. If the personal traits and behaviors of an employee do not influence job performance, the characteristics should not be considered.
Finally, ethics and integrity should be central to the selection. You cannot train people to behave ethically. If the search process reveals prior instances of unethical behavior, the hiring manager would be well advised to look elsewhere.
Given these criteria, what grade would the American voters receive for their selection of political leaders? To answer this question, consider the upcoming, as well as prior, presidential elections.
With regard to tightly focusing on critical success factors, most voters want a president who is competent in foreign policy and capable of managing the domestic economy. Many voters go awry by expanding this list to include matters best dealt with at the local level. The converse also occurs with voters in local elections placing international affairs at the top of their priorities. As one example, a group of activist-voters recently chastised the Austin Texas City Council for being pawns of the United Nations. In reality, the local city council isn't going to do a great deal to influence foreign policy, and the president has little power to curtail teen drinking or texting while driving. However, voter behavior doesn't always reflect this reality.
As a group, voters don't fare better when it comes to setting aside personal biases and prejudices. Indeed, irrelevant personal traits rise to the top of many voters' list of qualifications. Height, thickness of hair, and a propensity not to sweat are among the factors believed to have influenced past presidential elections. Yet, it is religion that is at the top of the list of personal traits that voters consider.
Has anyone read an article about Mitt Romney's campaign that didn't mention his religion? Romney isn't a single victim of his religion. There are active web sites attempting to prove that President Obama is Muslim.
The last criterion, ethics, presents a particular problem. Somehow, when politicians are found to have committed ethical violations, they leave reluctantly. Anthony Weiner's recent sexting incidents come to mind. Weiner only resigned under intense pressure from those in his own party. In some cases, the guilty manage to serve out their terms and a few get reelected. For many voters, ideology triumphs over ethics.
Many voters lament the lack of strong and principled leaders in Washington and at the state and local levels. If our leaders are lacking, we might want to place some blame on the folks who hire them.