The Risk of Taking a Stand
by Steve Coats

Whether you agree or not with his politics, you must give President Bush credit for one thing that is a hallmark of leaders. He has demonstrated, most recently with Iraq, a willingness to put a stake in the ground on where he stands on certain issues, and to take action consistent with his beliefs. And as much as we look for this kind of conviction from those in other leadership positions, too few are courageous enough to show it.

There may be a number of reasons why many in leadership positions are hesitant to publicly take stands on key issues or beliefs. Let's take a look at a couple of them more closely.

The First Peril of Stating Your Position

Staying in the political arena for a moment, one recent example about unwillingness to take stands comes to mind. In the state of Ohio, candidates running for state and national legislative posts have been much less forthcoming on where they stand on key issues. According to Project Vote Smart, 44% of those running for the Ohio legislature in 2000 were willing to articulate their positions on key issues. In 2002, that number was down to 23%. For those running for national seats, the same trend occurred. In 2000, 65% were willing to put forth those positions, while two years later, the number dropped nearly 20 points to 46%.

Why do you think candidates have become less willing to state their positions? One answer might be, fewer candidates today are clear on where they stand. Think about the implications of that! Another might be they do not want to be too closely associated with one side or another, as that may cause them to lose potential voters (the "stay in the middle and appeal to everyone" strategy).

However, the main reason cited for so few candidates wanting to clearly articulate where they stand on key issues: they did not want their opponents to know. They feared their opponents might use this information in campaigning against them. So much for the needs of the voters, who if I am not mistaken, is the primary group these candidates claim they are seeking to serve.

This situation illustrates the first reason that some avoid taking a stand, and is one of the paradoxes of leadership. We expect leaders to take stands, but when they do, they make it easier for their opponents to take shots at them. We have been able to observe this closely with President Bush's relentless efforts to win congressional support for Iraq.

On a side note, it is amazing the number of and different kinds of opponents who might surface when you make your position clear. For Bush, it was predictable and expected that there would be strong differences of opinion from the opposing party and other world governments, who are either allied with Iraq or perhaps unfriendly toward the US. Yet for some reason, an unusual number of the rich and famous from Hollywood publicly weighed in with their dissent on this particular matter. Who could have guessed these entertainers possessed so much foreign policy and national security expertise!

The Second Peril

People have another high expectation of their leaders. They want leaders to be forward looking, always having an eye on a better future. In a nutshell, people choose to follow a certain individual, because they long for the destination that leader is seeking to take them to. But here is the dilemma.

Leaders must make tough decisions today, which they believe are best for reaching that desired future state. Trouble is, there is never enough totally accurate information in hand to make faultless decisions. Therefore, leaders utilize the best information and objective data they currently have, and then rely on other more subjective factors, based on experience, intuition or sometimes, the right feeling. After considering all of these, leaders will ultimately take action based on their own beliefs and the trust or faith they have in themselves about the course they are about to take.

Think about it. At the time the decision was made to invest in the transistor, the moon landing, the mini-van, or any number of other "questionable" opportunities, opponents could have virtually always made a rational case against it. The same is true today, whether the circumstances in play are the potential financial success of one company, acquiring another, or a foreign tyrant's ability to build and deploy weapons that directly impact the security of our nation and the world.

Can you appreciate the conundrum? Leaders must take stands today, yet the "correctness" of the decisions evolving from those positions will often not be known until sometime in the future. This may be the single most difficult responsibility of leaders, because people expect them to "get it right" going forward. However, the future is always a game of risk, where each of several alternatives can appear to be best. Still, leaders step up to ensure that a choice is made and appropriate action is taken.

Implications Today

Unfortunately, no one is surprised when political candidates or office holders cloak their positions or bounce from side to side on a key issue. After all, "they are politicians." But is that what we expect from people in leadership roles in business, or school systems, churches or any other organization?

For the past several months, evidence would indicate that for some very senior business people, the only thing they really stood for was personal wealth. Yet, I would be willing to bet that most, if not all of these fallen executives had on several occasions during their tenures, appeared to have taken strong stands about the need to conduct their businesses with absolute honesty and integrity. From what I have read, it was clearly a fundamental principle at Arthur Andersen, and I would assume the same is true at the companies where the other culprits were on watch. Sadly, their so-called stakes in the ground were nothing more than hot air. And the consequences to many innocent people have been staggering.

But the mixed messages surrounding a person's beliefs or convictions do not just occur at the senior level. Would-be leaders at all levels seem very quick to take a stand on a value or issue, only to cave in when staying the course becomes either too difficult or inconvenient. Have you ever worked around someone who spoke like a prophet about quality, only to start hammering you about low volume when sales projections were not being met? Or how about the person who expresses an unswerving devotion to teamwork and collaboration, only to unflinchingly deceive his or her own peers in order to look better or end up at the top. There is probably no need to comment on how often the concrete values about customer service or employee development have met the wrecking ball when times started getting tough.

Perhaps you have heard the expression, "the person who stands for nothing will fall for anything." In order to genuinely lead, you must stand for something. You must be willing to commit yourself to certain beliefs, values and actions. Then you must be willing to make them public. This is risky, not only for the reasons already examined, but also because when you make your positions visible, others will hold you much more accountable for them. Finally, you must then stay true to the stands you have taken. People will be watching you with a crooked eye to make sure that the actions you take are in line with the lofty or passionate words you have spoken.

So beware. Don't expect to win popularity contests in settings where the stakes are high, the circumstances are controversial, and the measures of success are months or years away. As a leader, you had better have your values and beliefs firmly in place, because you will need them in order to endure the certain hardships of standing by your convictions. If you are unprepared or unwilling to struggle for them, do not try to convince anyone that you are truly committed. You will only lose credibility, and no one will choose to willingly follow you.


Steven C. Coats is Managing Partner of International Leadership Associates - dedicated to developing leaders that inspire other people to do the best work of their lives. Contact Steven at http://www.i-lead.com .

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