Three Lessons About Leading Change from the Debt Ceiling Chaos

Three Lessons About Leading Change from the Debt Ceiling Chaos

Randy Pennington shares lessons about leading change from the debt limit debate

There has to be something we can learn from Washington’s failure to address the debt limit, right?

There are three very important lessons about leading change you can take from the chaos over approving the federal budget and raising the debt ceiling.

1. You lose credibility when you attempt to threaten people into change when you have no power over them. You can’t bully people and then expect them to willingly cooperate with you.

I applaud Senator Ted Cruz’s commitment to his principles, and I even agree with him on some issues. But his tactic of promoting the defunding of Obamacare as the prerequisite for funding the government was an example of what goes wrong when you try to use power that you do not have to implement a change that you want. Everyone understood that Cruz needed to make the effort to slow down implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but he took it too far because everyone knew that he didn’t have the votes or support to get his way. As a result, Cruz lost credibility with colleagues in the Senate that he needs to advance the changes he wants.

Likewise, the President can’t bully the Republicans in Congress and expect them to cooperate with him to keep the government open or extend the debt ceiling. These are two important changes and neither side can get everything it wants in a divided government. It feels as if leaders on both sides are putting some flawed concept of “winning” above the responsibility for governing.

2. Crisis works.

How long have we been talking about the looming showdown in October? It feels as if it has been most of this year. Washington is proving the idea nothing spurs action like a good crisis. That is because there is no common or compelling vision for a positive future. Without the shared vision, we are left to lurch from crisis to crisis.

3. When everything is a crisis then nothing is a crisis.

The stock market actually went up on the first day of the government shutdown. It has sense dropped, but it is safe to say that no one believed that the shutdown would last as long as it has. And, no one ever considered that there might be a failure to raise the debt limit. Now, we are seeing the market gyrate daily with the hopes and fears about resolving this problem. The result of lurching from crisis to crisis and then miraculously resolving it is that no one takes the crisis seriously. That’s a very ineffective way to lead.

The Message for Leaders

Some chaos is in governing is to be expected. The United States’ democratic process has built in obstacles to collaboration and creating a shared vision. But, the challenges of a divided government do not lesson the importance of a shared vision and knowing how to effectively lead change.

For private sector leaders, there is no excuse for the lack of clear direction and shared vision to provide context for change. And yet, we see leaders and organizations lurching from one crisis to the next and bullying people into change.

This is a lousy way to lead if your goal is the engagement of others to help you achieve an important goal. It doesn’t work in Washington. It doesn’t work if you are a local elected official, and it doesn’t work if you are leading a group of employees.

Compliance can be mandated. Commitment and collaboration are volunteered. And, commitment and collaboration are what you need to make change work.

About the Author:

Randy Pennington

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author and a leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit or call 972-980-9857.