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  • Jay Kaufman

Reflections on political leadership

For all the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truths, the Declaration was in 1776 as it is today more aspirational than descriptive. As we continue the ongoing struggle to realize liberty and justice for all, there are three other truths – inconvenient truths – about leadership in a democracy whose importance cannot be overstated, particularly in the nation's current political environment.

Truth #1: Politics is played on the slippery slope, not on the mountaintop of ideals. Those in political life must constantly strive to balance competing priorities and values, our own and those of the people we represent as well as those with whom we serve, and short-and long-term results and consequences.

Truth #2: Politics is a team sport. You cannot get your footing on the slippery slope in isolation. You need allies and confidantes, and you need to work in concert with others in order to prevail. Democracy is built on the simple premise that we’re all in this together, and our democratic institutions demand sharing of authority and responsibility, the give and take required to keep us together.

Truth #3: You can’t always get what you want: Politics is the art of the possible. In my experience, the most critical challenge is to find the sweet spot between what you want to do in a particular situation or at a particular time and what is possible. Failing to be faithful to your ideals is unethical, but so too is sacrificing the good on the altar of the ideal. If you’re an advocate or preacher, then your job is to speak truth to power, at all times and at all costs. But if you’re in the political arena and are only speaking truth and not moving in the direction of the truth, then you’re missing the mark. Tony Kushner wrote words on this subject, spoken by the Abraham Lincoln character in the movie “Lincoln.” Senator Thaddeus Stevens, meeting with the President in the basement of the White House, accuses the President of having lost his moral compass. The President reflects on this: A compass I learned when I was surveying, it will point you true North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing true North? Ethical politics is doing all you can at every turn, and then returning to the unfinished work when its time has come.

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