Saturday, January 29, 2011


Dan Gardner on the relationship between planning, acting, leadership, and explaining it later:

“Asked to name the greatest challenge to their plans that leaders face, British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously responded, "Events, dear boy. Events."

Only in hindsight do we see leaders carefully formulating plans prior to taking power, then deliberately enacting them in their entirety. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the supreme example. Running for the presidency in 1932, FDR's campaign promises looked nothing like the New Deal he ultimately created. But FDR didn't have a hidden agenda. There wasn't much of an agenda, hidden or otherwise. There was only a small group of men, terrified by the scale of the crisis and the pace of events, desperately putting bits and pieces together into what they hoped would be a functioning machine. "To look upon these policies as the result of a unified plan," wrote Raymond Moley, Roosevelt's top aide, "was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter's tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy's bedroom could have been put there by an interior designer."”

It is a pity that we tend now to focus entirely on the promises leaders make rather than on the principles they represent. It’s their principles we ought to count on. If those principles prove inappropriate for a current reality, then that is what we ought to look back on, not on a count of broken promises.
Gardner is writing about politics, but his observations might apply equally well to the situations you face when you are counselling. You come in—and this is the first thing that differentiates one counsellor from another—with a set of guiding principles and maybe even some ideas about the first few things you will say. Then, some time in the first ten minutes, you hear a story and, as often as not, you are somewhere you didn’t intend to be. In the space of an hour—and this is the second thing that differentiates one counsellor from another—you make certain decisions about how to fit your principles to the events unfolding before you.

The central idea that took hold of me from the moment when I originally climbed the steps to the front door of Hope House was, “There ought to be hope here. People expect it of a place called Hope House.” I long ago lost count of our partially fulfilled promises—uttered in earnest--to make categorical and chronological sense of the array of strategies, practices, tools, processes and experiments we’ve tried to frame as a coherent picture. At times the frustration and complexity of the prospect has driven me nearly to despair.
These days I am more inclined to settle for a principle rather than a promise to pull it all together. If there is any over-arching factor that can account for the work done by the team at the Hope Foundation of Alberta perhaps it is this: Regardless of what is happening, how often it has already happened and the outlook for the future, there ought to be hope. Somebody needs to see it. It might be both of us, or me first, or you first. All the tools we have are aimed towards making sure somebody does.
Fortunately for us, we have been able to stick with the principle. Most of what we have learned focusses on what it takes to adapt that principle to the current reality. If only our political leaders could be viewed and evaluated in that light, if only we’d encourage them to constantly reiterate the principle in order to explain the action of choice, we’d all be better off.

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