Paul L. Caron
Dean


Friday, June 7, 2019

Great Leaders Abhor Half-Measures: Why John Adams Succeeded With The Declaration Of Independence And Theresa May Failed With Brexit

Captain ClassWall Street Journal op-ed:  The Dangers of Half Measures, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

In the early summer of 1776, John Adams had grown profoundly exasperated.

King George had declared the 13 American colonies in open rebellion and sent troops to enforce his authority. A declaration of independence, and all-out war, seemed inevitable but still, holdouts in the Second Continental Congress kept clogging the docket with feckless half-measures and spineless appeasements.

“In politics, the middle way is none at all,” Adams fumed that March in a letter to an ally. “If we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping for the middle way.”

One of the hallmarks of a great leader is the ability to convince others to do something difficult under maximum duress. For Adams, America’s loudest voice for independence, this test finally arrived on July 2, 1776, when the matter was put to a vote.

More than two centuries later, on March 29, 2019, British lawmakers convened in London to vote on a different kind of high-stakes divorce proposal: The United Kingdom’s long-planned departure from the European Union.

When Prime Minister Theresa May rose that day to support her Brexit deal, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d spent any time studying the events of 1776. By the time she’d finished talking, I was fairly certain she hadn’t.

These two “exits” were vastly different, of course, but there were a few key similarities. In both cases, the will of the people was clear enough. In 1776, most colonists supported independence, or soon would, while British voters had approved Brexit in a 2016 referendum.

Political maneuvering had delayed both measures for months, and time was running short. The colonists had a war to prepare for, while the U.K. faced the prospect of expulsion from the EU with no accommodations at all.

The key difference was the outcome: The colonies opted for independence without a single dissenting vote, but Parliament rejected Mrs. May’s last-ditch Brexit proposal by a 58-vote margin. John Adams, hailed as the “Atlas” of independence, went on to become president in 1796. On May 24, with no Brexit resolution in sight, Mrs. May announced her resignation.

If there’s a leadership lesson in these two tales, it’s this: The best way to persuade people to do something hard is to present them with the hardest possible choice.

Although Adams lobbied his colleagues tirelessly, he also set limits. He didn’t cut deals to secure votes or waste time negotiating with the king. He wanted delegates to cast their votes on one question only: whether the colonists, and really all people, had a fundamental right to be governed by consent.

By framing the vote as a matter of principle, Adams boxed “the cool crowd,” as he called them, into a difficult corner. They weren’t weighing another bundle of deal points and compromises, they were ruling on the nature of government itself. ...

From the moment she became prime minister in 2016, Mrs. May’s primary job, as she saw it, was to honor the Brexit referendum while negotiating the best deal possible from the EU.

Three years later, on March 29—the very date Britain had originally set for Brexit—she presented Parliament with a proposal that was starkly different from the one Adams had offered. It was, quite literally, a half-measure.

To exit the EU, Parliament had to approve two things: a negotiated withdrawal agreement laying out the practical, immediate details of a Brexit, and a political declaration that would define the U.K.’s relationship with Europe in the future.

Rather than dialing up the pressure, Mrs. May tried to make the vote less intimidating. The more-contentious political declaration, which would ultimately determine the scope and severity of Brexit, was withheld, leaving lawmakers to rule solely on the basic nuts and bolts. In other words, she postponed the tricky bit. ...

Like it or not, the British public chose a difficult, treacherous road. Brexit isn’t an incremental issue, it’s existential. In a case like that, concessions and middle measures only give ditherers more pegs to hang their pet concerns on. ...

[T]he most fateful moments in the life of a nation, or a company, can’t be micromanaged. When a leader arrives at the edge of a cliff, the best approach is to distill the debate down to one stark, unequivocal choice.

Are we going to jump, or not?

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2019/06/great-leaders-abhor-half-measures-why-john-adams-succeeded-with-the-declaration-of-independence-and-.html

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Comments

If John Adams was the loudest voice for independence, why did he spend so much time telling Samuel Adams and John Hancock to cool down? And few historians would call Adams' tenure as president unabashedly "great." And while the Declaration of Independence may have not required too many backroom deals or compromises, the Constitution sure as hell did. This op-ed's historical grasp on Adams and his era is shockingly reductive and arguably disingenuous.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jun 7, 2019 10:03:46 AM


Half measures

can kill

when,

chafing at the bit in terror,

we twitch our ears,

all lathered in foam,

on the brink of precipices

because we can't jump halfway across.

Y. Yevtushenko

Posted by: Chuck Moss | Jun 9, 2019 5:18:05 AM

Unemployed quote: "And while the Declaration of Independence may have not required too many backroom deals or compromises, the Constitution sure as hell did."

That's inherent in the difference between the two issues. The Declaration of Independence was clear-cut. The British would no longer tell us how to run our lives. On the other hand the Constitution was inherently complicated. It was about how we were to run our country. That required a lot of deal-making. Good leaders understand that.

One of those, recently in the news, was the electoral college, obviously inserted to ensure that a few states with large populations didn't run the country to suit themselves. That's still an active issue today despite that fact that the Stupid Profession (journalism, if you hadn't noticed), doesn't understand why it exists.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Jun 9, 2019 5:20:21 AM

Your analysis of good leadership is sound, but your comparison falls down. Adams wanted independence, May did not.

May’s ‘deal’ was designed to trap the UK in the EU, so-called BRINO, Brexit In Name Only. True enough she was incompetent.

‘King George had declared the 13 American colonies in open rebellion and sent troops to enforce his authority.’

No he didn’t. He did not have the power to do that, because at that point GB had a Constitutional Monarchy and the power of the Crown was devolved to its Ministers. It was the British Government backed by Parliament who did it.

Posted by: John B | Jun 9, 2019 5:45:21 AM

"From the moment she became prime minister in 2016, Mrs. May’s primary job, as she saw it, was to honor the Brexit referendum while negotiating the best deal possible from the EU."
I disagree. I think she saw her primary job as keeping Brexit from happening at all. To drag it all out until the British people just got too tired to care anymore or foolishly allowed a second vote on what should have been a done deal. I think she managed to do what she set out to do for the time she was in office, but failed to completely kill Brexit or keep her position. Someone else will have to carry out the will of the British people. I hope the next Prime Minister has the courage of John Adams and just does it. The decision was made three years ago, now they need to just do it.

Posted by: Blackgriffin | Jun 9, 2019 5:46:38 AM

"The Declaration of Independence was clear-cut. The British would no longer tell us how to run our lives"

Aside from the subsequent two wars were they tried to tell us how to live our lives. And burned Washington DC. And of course I left out the nitty-gritty about the various states' delegates who balked at ratifying the Declaration of Independence for sundry reasons, most notably NY. And of course the document was revised several times by Congress before they ratified it. And of course Jefferson (and Washington, Madison, Monroe, and the other Virginia planters) continued to live beyond their means off British credit. History is complicated; this op-ed was stupid.

And of course something like 400,000 Americans were loyalists and left the US for Britain or Canada were, to bring this full circle, they ended enjoying tax burdens substantially less than their neighbors who stayed in the US (as it turns out you have to pay for wars, and they do get pricey). Look it up.

"One of those, recently in the news, was the electoral college, obviously inserted to ensure that a few states with large populations didn't run the country to suit themselves"

Which is why Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 68 wrote that the EC was a mechanism to prevent the ascension of someone with "talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity. [This] may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States."

I think that speaks for itself. It's funny how afraid some people are of representative democracy, isn't it?

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jun 9, 2019 10:55:19 PM

Mr. Perry: In no other country in the world would a candidate with three million fewer votes be declared the winner of an election. Maybe that's why the "stupid profession" considers the electoral college a problem.

Posted by: Gerald Scorse | Jun 10, 2019 6:24:50 AM