An Insightful Conference . . . Politics and Statesmanship

A politician thinks of the next election – a statesman of the next generation. – James Freeman Clarke

This past week I was invited to attend a conference in London sponsored by REFORM, an independent, UK charitable, non-party think tank whose mission is to set out a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity. I was reluctant to attend but glad I did.  The Rt Hon Sir Philip Hammond MP, Secretary of State for Defence, plus the Rt. Hon Jim Murphy MP, Shadow-Secretary of State for Defence were the keynote speakers, plus two panels of government, business and media experts.

For those of you not familiar with the British political system, the party in power (currently the Conservative Party) effectively guides policy and runs the country, but the other party, (in this case the Labour Party) matches each of the key positions with a Shadow-Secretary, who puts forth alternative points of view during policy debates in Parliament, and challenges the data and decisions of the ruling party.

What struck me about this conference and the issue, curtailing and making more efficient defence spending, (a very contentious topic, especially when defence spending in the UK is around 6% of the total national spend) is that it was not only a fair and rational set of arguments, pro and con, but was conducted in the spirit of open debate, respect for the opposition’s point of view, and with statesman-like rhetoric.

I couldn’t help but compare the tone of this debate, featuring opposing parties, with the current way in which policy issues are debated in the US. First of all, it is my experience that the US has regressed from a culture of statesmanship, openness, honesty and factual debate, to name calling, soundbite one-upmanship, inflammatory media coverage and biased “political comment”. The US has moved far away from debating to find common ground and the best solutions, and has fallen face first into political infighting and obstructionism.

While no governmental process is perfect, I was definitely impressed with the quality of the debate and the tone in the room during this conference.  US politicians need to realign themselves with the original purpose of the democratic political process, which is not to get in power and stay in power, but to serve well the people of the nation, not just your party or your state or your own small constituency.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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5 Responses to An Insightful Conference . . . Politics and Statesmanship

  1. British politicians may have better manners and probably better debating skills, honed in the Oxford Union, but their system tends to corrupt no less than ours. Remember the 2009 parliamentary expense scandal? As Thomas Jefferson said “whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” It is truly rare to find a statesman these days.


  2. Well, I think it is both the system and the type of individual that is attracted to political office. Most people in the private sector share a motivation to produce something that other people want to buy at a price that at least covers the cost of making it. To fetch this price, the product or service has to have certain qualities that meet expectations. Competition is not perfect but it generally ensures that in most cases expectations are met or the company goes out of business.

    Politics is different. Politicians have an incentive to get elected/re-elected which means they are motivated to support, or appear to support, policies that voters want implemented. However, once they are in office the incentive disappears and some politicians will choose to renege on their campaign promises with very little downside risk. Many politicians will choose to take bribes on behalf of sectional interests, disguised as campaign contributions. Others will act in a way that maximizes their chance of a future well-paid job in a regulatory agency or lobbying firm. Government bureaucrats may seek government employment either because they are public-spirited or because of the benefits. However, once they are employed there is little or no risk of them losing their job so their behavior often changes. They do the minimum work necessary and become committed to expanding their department and its budget.

    In short incentives matter and I would argue that the incentives of big government no longer promote the public interest but rather are detrimental to it.

    As to exactly why we continue to vote in weak and greedy politicians, I just finished an excellent book on the subject by Bryan Caplan, called ‘The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies’:

    The essence of his argument is that, unlike businessmen, voters have no skin in the game, so they have no incentive to vote well, or learn why the policies they have been voting for don’t work.


  3. Raunak says:

    During my last campaign assignment I spent a lot of time in villages debating with opposition party workers on roadside tea stalls, cafes etc. Any place that had 5-10 people in it would soon convert into a debate hall. These debates were extremely rich in content and analysis of policies and their impacts. I was particularly surprised by the amount of knowledge and information that ground workers of every party possessed. It was an extremely enriching experience.
    However, debates lost their relevance as one climbed up the political hierarchy, so much so that the Prime Ministerial Candidates in India do not even debate each other on policies.
    I think that leaders that have risen from the ground up in politics appreciate the importance of debates more than those who have used wealth to enter the higher wrungs of politics. The US is witnessing this phenomenon where more and more elected representatives have not spent enough time in the political grass roots. For them, politics is power and not service.


    • Raunak: glad to have you back on WP. Guess work is interfering with bloging (join the club). thanks for your comments on my recent blogs. Like you, and many others, I am passionate about leadership and the future. After all, I have a 13 year old daughter who will inherit our world.


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