Loyalty or Competence?

First it was Rumsfeld, then Bolton, then Wolfowitz, Karl Rove and now Gonzalez.

If there’s a constructive lesson to be found in all of this, I think it has to be that smart leaders don’t surround themselves exclusively with like-minded loyalists who can be counted on to all sing from the same hymnal.

The real job of a leader is to create a governance environment where diverse ideas and opinions are both welcomed and listened to. In fact, this is the only environment in which competence and executive leadership can flourish.

In such an environment, it is possible to take political risks, draw into discussion those with whom one may not agree, listen to the opposition and to remain open, both in discourse and in thought, to new and challenging ideas.

Even in state government, managing any one agency or department is a daunting task, and demands a caliber of leadership that one rarely finds just among party loyalists.

Good leaders not only manage diverse opinion, they have the confidence and breadth of vision to embrace it, knowing intrinsically that a rich mix of innovative ideas and options is the very key to their own success.

Because of this, selection criteria for strong cabinet members and leaders for the complex departments of State should be individuals with skill, experience and what want-ads often refer to as “a proven track record of success,” not just political loyalty.

The leadership fallout in Washington is a direct result of assembling a powerful star chamber of like-minded ideologues rather than a team of accomplished individuals with experience in their fields, be it Justice, The World Bank, the UN, the Dept. of Defense or Homeland Security.

There is a lesson here for us in Vermont. The race is to the swiftest not the most loyal. Vermont faces some daunting economic issues. The federal government is poised to significantly reduce money coming into the States for social and economic programs. This is a key goal for Washington. Witness the formula change in qualification for federal support of Vermont’s Catamount Health.

Vermont is a tiny economic engine with a large appetite for social and educational programs. As the Bush administration shifts more of the funding burden to the States, Vermont will face some tough choices. The Douglas administration is rightly focused on “affordability,” but they could provide much more dynamic and imaginative leadership by also promoting “economic prosperity” in the form of innovative economic development initiatives.

Vermont has many things right. We have a long history of political, if not racial, diversity. We must continue to encourage and respect robust civil debate, and avoid the timid politics of loyalists. If we fail to do that, the fallout will be a loss of faith in the broader political system, especially among our young who are much more perceptive about our political behavior than we like to believe.

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