The debt ceiling time bomb, and Washington’s complacency cancer


The slow headway political leaders have made in addressing the budget deficit is just the latest example of Washington’s chronic lack of urgency. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 27, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and five expert contributors — Governor Mitch Daniels, former Senate leader Tom Daschle, Harvard professor John P. Kotter, former Congressman Slade Gorton and Wharton professor Stuart Diamond — about the leadership issues at the core of the U.S. debt debacle.

Washington is one of the most complacent places on earth.

I say this with no disrespect to the administration, Congress, federal workers or even lobbyists. It's just a fact; and a predictable one in light of our history. This may be fine at times for checks and balances, but it’s scary too. Especially when we have a debt ceiling time bomb ticking.

Complacency exists when people think what they are doing is right and they don't need to change. This can go hand in hand with thinking the world around them is good or thinking the world around them is a disaster and everyone else needs to change. If enough people think either of the two—“everything is OK” or “I'm fine, but you're not”—you have a complacent organization.

The most common cause of complacency is past success. You might think, “But, no rational mind in Washington would call the events of the last three years a big success,” yet that's not the way complacency works. In the past 250 years, Washington has arguably been the most successful place on earth. It’s been the power center of a nation that created the biggest economy in the world, developed the only military superpower, led the way in promoting democratic capitalism, nurtured an environment of innovation, and produced more Nobel laureates than anywhere else. This is really big stuff when you stop to think about it. And this string of achievements, built firmly into the Washington culture, has kept people complacent, even in the wake of recent failures.


John P. Kotter is chief innovation officer of Kotter International and the bestselling author of ‘Leading Change’. He is also the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership, emeritus, at Harvard Business School.

In a world that is changing faster and faster all the time, complacency is cancer. Not bad. Not a problem. Cancer. There are very well-known and often still highly respected companies that have the disease, and their futures aren’t pretty. Many people, including capable CEOs, don't recognize this in their organizations—and even more don't see it in themselves. Success and scale usually result in an inward focus, where people don't see the threats or opportunities that lie just outside. This is a common critique of those inside the Beltway. They of course deny this, as do people in all organizations. Just ask a crowd of people how many of them are complacent, and see how many hands go up.

What does Washington need to do to break this complacency? At the top of the list, it needs to create a much, much greater sense of urgency, where people get up every morning determined to do something that same day to help the country avoid catastrophe and capitalize on its biggest opportunities. It doesn't have to be a grand action, but it can’t be done out of anxiety—people really need to think and feel it’s the right thing to do. Anxiety produces frenetic behavior. It’s activity, not productivity, and it leads people to run chaotically and exhaustedly in circles, looking like they have a great sense of urgency when they don't.

You will see that just turning a handful of people from complacent to urgent is a big win and will start to make an impact. Economists, take note: Winning hearts and minds away from complacency is not possible with economic data alone. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn't pull hundreds of thousands if not millions of white people into his cause by saying, "I have a strategic plan. Let's look first at the data in exhibit A". It sounds silly when framed that way, but listen to some of the conversations in Washington these days that focus solely on the numbers, and they don't sound much different.

Is it possible to kill enough of the complacency cancer in Washington so we can create a better country for ourselves and our children? Washington as a whole is a big challenge, and it will have to start with the leadership at the top. But boy, would it make a difference.

Want to help?

If you’re a Washington outsider, talk to an insider. Ask them what they did yesterday—seriously, yesterday—to help the nation deal with its biggest hazards and opportunities. If the action sounds credible (odds are it won't), ask how well it worked out. And if there is little evidence that it helped anything, then ask what they are going to try to do today that is different.

If you’re a Washington insider, ask yourself the same questions.

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