Leading US Astray: Gov Shutdown Models Three Reasons Creating a Crisis isn’t Leadership

The government is officially, if temporarily, rebooted. Federal workers are back on the Beltway on excruciating commutes and sighs of relief. The cavernous halls of monumental Washington buildings echo with harried footsteps. Now that the Republican-induced crisis is over, everyone’s talking about leadership — what can we do to prevent this from happening again!?  Well, for starters, let’s return to a fundamental leadership principle that is so basic we rarely mention it: don’t create a crisis — solve one! 

Creating a crisis and simply doesn’t forward a leader’s agenda, unless a vision requires breaking down relationships, increasing distrust and alienating supporters. Here are three reasons leading on purpose doesn’t include instigating a crisis on purpose.

Reason #1: Creating a crisis means losing credibility. Do it once, and fix it — maybe, just maybe, that’s a wake up call. But as a general strategy, it’s just passive aggressive sabotage (especially because a leader-created crisis has to look like it was caused by someone else.) Repeat performances make it harder to convince followers of your good intentions. If you’ve gone on leadership strike, expect followers to go on follower strike!

Case in point — the Republican showdowns that shut down the government four times since April, 2011. The Washington Post reports that the GOP achieved one of their active goals — cutting government spending.

“You changed the conversation the first time” the House Republicans threatened a government shutdown, said Michael D. Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute. But, he said, Republicans never moved beyond their crisis strategy, to the more nuanced task of wresting individual changes in law. “They didn’t seem to have an Act Two,” Tanner said. “And not having an Act Two means you go back and do this again.”


And that means the confrontational strategy becomes “more like a booby trap than a real-world policy.” That means followers who were once sympathic lose faith.

Here’s Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) on leadership: “Sun Tzu said, ‘Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat,’ ” Johnson said. He believes Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate are still the main obstacles to his work. But the House’s crises have made it hard to focus on anything else. “The kind of mule-headed, dig-in-your-heels-at-all-cost thinking and political theater that we see going on in Washington — that’s not what our founders intended,” Johnson said.

Reason #2: Even if you really believe that creating a crisis was necessary, you created it. Blaming someone else just makes you look like a bad leader.

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times (October 6, 2013)

Perceptions, right or wrong, will not go in your favor. Your supporters will see the worst in you, as you blame others for the very decisions you made a point of publicly making.  Your opponents will take an opportunity to criticize your choices, your attitudes, your justifications, and, to use an old fashioned phrase, tar you with your own brush. And, like it or not, it will be your own brush, because you took the risk to create a crisis.

Whatever your rationale, you’ve made a mess, and now you get to clean it up.

Reason #3: Creating a crisis has a ripple effect. Current crises get worse, and new crises happen.

The ripple effect is real, for any decision, crisis-creating or not. There are consequences, most of them unintentional, for any choice or policy shift. Leaders with power and influence create stronger, more far reaching ripples. So creating a crisis — on purpose, that is — is motivated by the desire to create ripples. The thing is, it’s arrogant for any leader, big or small, to believe that s/he can control the ripple effect. No leader can.

President Obama said on Oct. 17, the day the shutdown ended: “At a moment when our economic recovery demands more jobs, more momentum, we’ve got yet another self-inflicted crisis that’s set our economy back and for what? There was no economic rationale for all of this.”

Whether or not anti-Obamacare Republicans agree with his assessment of the rationale, everyone saw the ripple effect on citizens, from terminally ill children who couldn’t get their medical treatments to federal employees struggling to pay bills, a falling stock market and one of those discouraging dips in available jobs that means rising unemployment.  (See CNBC report for details.)

In leadership, the old cliches are often the most true. Like it or not, actions speak louder than words. It’s sad that top US leaders offer such a clear object lesson for something that should be so obvious: creating a crisis is not a good leadership strategy – it’s a leadership tragedy.

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