Suits and Arrows


Like him or not, agree with him or not, imagine what President Bush must feel at the juncture of two utterly awful choices: stay with the guarantee of more deaths and no guarantee of stability, or leave with the virtual guarantee of heightened chaos. Neither is a good choice; only the choice of lesser evils. And he stands at that crossroads.

I appreciate this in a most personal way, as my wife the governor — along with the legislature — also stands at a crossroads of unhappy choices: raise some taxes or devastate services. Now, everyone agrees that government can be reformed and made more efficient, but all those with an ounce of intellectual honesty know that this will not avoid the hard short-term choice: raise some revenue from us citizens who benefit, or slash the services we expect.

Although I am no voting actor in this drama, I feel this vortex of forces personally. I am not being metaphorical when I say that it is physical (usually a knot in my stomach — a wonderful image for a problem that’s as tight as a knot, no?). You may be facing similar dilemmas, where you cannot please all of your constituents; e.g., two of your kids who are dug in and divided, or a staff is irrevocably split and you are going to lose one of your key leaders, or limited resources mean some programs must go. In such situations, where people care very deeply, they will cast upon you all their innately conflicted hopes and desires.

In my book Everyday Leadership, I spend a good deal of time discussing the pressures on those with authority-in-leadership, but I’ll offer just one thought here. It’s an idea I first heard from Ronald Heifetz at Harvard, that was made vivid in an image that Governor Mario Cuomo shared with me. Heifetz writes profoundly about “authority,” and Cuomo described it as “wearing a suit.” The attacks which feel venomous, are not aimed at the person in the suit but at the authority. For instance, they’re aimed at President Bush, not at George H.W.’s and Barbara’s son and the twins’ dad, George W. They are attacks upon the suit of authority, and how that suit is being worn and used.

Now, it’s not easy to make this distinction when the arrows are being shot at you. But whether you’re the President, on down to a front-line supervisor or mentor, it helps to distinguish between that suit and the person you are. When you wear the suit, you inevitably ask people to make difficult choices. This distinction between “suit” and “self” allows you to deflect some of the shots, especially in this impatient and uncivil world where citizens and the media alike throw some vicious barbs, where, words like “idiot” or even worse will come your way.

Using this distinction doesn’t only have the benefit of giving you some breathing room. It also allows you to see a little more clearly what it is that people want from their authorities. When they’re hurling attacks, you can ask clinical questions like, “Why was that punishment so troublesome to my daughter?” Or, “Exactly which departments are raising the biggest ruckus about what’s been done?” When you see that it’s about the suit and not the self, that analysis is a lot easier to perform, because you don’t feel the need to be defensive.

Leading from authority in tough times sometimes requires a good strong suit for you to

Lead with your best self,

Dan Mulhern