The Power of Pushback

There has been a lot of talk about whether we're starting to see "green shoots"—signs of economic recovery—breaking through the recession's rubble.

We may be, and if so, it certainly would be cause for relief (and celebration). But we're also intrigued about "green shoots" of another sort. We think we might be seeing—kindly note our lack of certainty—incipient signs that the Administration's full-throttle political hegemony, powering along like a locomotive since Barack Obama took office with a Democratic Congress, might be beginning to give way to more healthy bipartisan debate. Our "evidence"? First, that Dick Cheney's critical comments about national security issues are getting traction in the media (even if Cheney, the man, is not). And second, that Californians voted overwhelmingly to block further tax-and-spend mayhem. Two events don't guarantee a trend, but it would sure be better for the country if this pair did.

The reason: Everyone knows ideas get better when they're energetically inspected, batted around by skeptics, and poked and probed from all angles. This is as true in business as in government. Everyone has been in a meeting where a solution was improved not just by discussion but by dissension. Everyone has seen a project exceed expectations because somewhere along the way a naysayer interjected: "Hold on a minute. Is this the best we can do?"

The Perils of Uncontested Leadership

Just think of how recent political history proves the point. Jimmy Carter's disastrous Presidency in the late '70s—with its sky-high unemployment and inflation and off-the-rails economic policies—was made possible by a yes-yes-yes congressional majority. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan was able to right matters, not just by installing Republican policies but by formulating a new approach in conjunction with the feisty Democratic opposition.

Similarly, Bill Clinton's first two years in office weren't nearly as successful as his last six, when Newt Gingrich spearheaded the Republican Party's strong counterpoint to Democratic initiatives. Surely, the sustained prosperity of that era was aided by the thoughtful (read: fierce) debate.

Finally, you need only look at George W. Bush's first six years in power to see the downside of one-party rule. The government spent like drunks at a liquor mart, abandoning fiscal principles and steering us into a difficult war.

But our point here is not to repudiate any particular President. Rather, it is to underscore the consequences of uncontested leadership. Arguably, the most effective Presidencies of the past 30-plus years have been those of Reagan and Clinton, and both clearly benefited from the kind of debate that comes from a loyal opposition. That's why we were so heartened to see Cheney's recent comments featured on many front pages beside the President's remarks. The differing opinions will undoubtedly enlarge the conversation and might even lead to a more effective, centrist outcome. As for California, the recent vote also strikes us as promising. Finally, people are saying, "Enough!" to financial irresponsibility. In fact, if the 2-1 margin means anything, it suggests that California residents are shouting to make their voices heard.

Encourage Real Debate

The lesson for business? Create an inclusive culture that encourages real debate. The fact is, as a leader, it can be tempting to shut out all the "noise." Back-and-forth slows things. Dissenters often come in very annoying packages. Who hasn't met a company gadfly who makes everyone insane with his or her persnicketiness?

But you can't give in to the lure of head-nodding. Whether you're running a team or a business empire, press yourself to reward the best ideas, no matter whose they are. Make heroes of the people who put forth unpopular views. And endure the cranks; indeed, force yourself to hear them out. Their opposition to the status quo is often a form of passion and caring for the company.

Now, we started this column by suggesting that two events might be "green shoots" of a small movement toward more bipartisan debate in this country. But even if we're wrong—and here's hoping we're not—our point remains. Every enterprise benefits when ideas get their full and vigorous due.

Pushback invariably increases payback.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.