The Inexorable Pressure to Say Something Dumb

The 24-hour news cycle makes it all too easy for public officials to react too quickly. They would do better to "think gray."
by | September 13, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

"There are few things wholly evil or wholly good," Abraham Lincoln said in a speech to the House of Representatives. "Almost everything, especially of government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded." This might be even more true today than it was in Lincoln's time. In public life, especially in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, there is huge pressure to be quick on the draw, to be the first to condemn or praise something and to react to policy questions quickly.

In his 2003 book "The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership," Steven B. Sample sets out an intriguing alternative: the principle of "thinking gray." Sample, a former president of the University of Southern California, writes that "for leaders, judgments as to the truth or falsity of information or the merits of new ideas should be arrived at as slowly and subtly as possible--and in many cases not at all."

Thinking gray is hard to do, and even seasoned public officials sometimes stumble. A recent example is seen in the reaction of Boston Mayor Tom Menino to the statement by Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A, suggesting that gay marriage is "inviting God's judgment on our nation." There is little doubt that Menino, a former Governing Public Official of the Year and the subject of a fascinating feature story in last January's issue, is an exceptional political leader. But his comment to the Boston Herald that "Chick-fil-A doesn't belong in Boston," and implying that it would "be very difficult" the company to get a restaurant license in that city, was a mistake. He acknowledged as much a few days later, saying that "I make mistakes all the time" and noting that he could not block the company's restaurants from getting licensed simply because of his own deep disagreement with the views of the company's president. In the end, some have argued that Menino's comments may actually have hurt the cause of gay marriage.

Decisions on emotionally charged issues are the hardest for political leaders. First, because your own feelings have the potential to cloud your thinking. And second, because emotion, rather than logic, motivates behavior, so decisions on emotional issues have great potential to advance or hold back the policy positions one favors. The stakes for both risk and return are higher.

Bill Benjamin, an expert on emotional intelligence and the keynote speaker at Governing's recent Texas Leadership Forum, outlined a strategy for dealing with these types of decisions. He calls his approach "SOSS," which stands for stop, oxygenate, support appreciation and seek information.

In describing "thinking gray," Steven Sample essentially agrees with Benjamin on the idea of stopping. "Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow," Sample writes. Leaders should use as much discretionary time as they have available to arrive at a good decision. "Oxygenate" simply means to take a few deep breaths to calm yourself and allow your brain to catch up with your emotions. "Support appreciation" means taking the time to think through the other person's position. Had Menino done this, for example, he might have realized that an immediate frontal assault on Dan Cathy's position using the power of the mayor's office would be taken as an affront to Cathy's freedom of expression and turned Cathy and his company into martyrs. As for seeking information, years of experience as a government auditor have taught me that the reason we do audits is that things are rarely what they seem.

Sample points out that "the popular media are a major stumbling block to thinking gray." That's a statement few public officials would disagree with. But politics and the media are, of course, inextricably intertwined, and communicating with the public and the other players in the political arena through the media is an essential, perhaps the most essential, aspect of the job of a public official.

Communicating well, especially on emotionally charged issues, requires thinking gray. When reporters demanding answers want to know why you're taking so long to respond to the latest hot issue, remember what Lincoln told the abolitionists who thought he wasn't moving fast enough: "I walk slowly but I never walk backward."