Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

One of the phrases I often use as a reminder to clients is to, “Keep your eye on the prize.”   The roots of this phrase come from one of the Civil Rights movement’s theme songs, reminding those struggling for civil rights to maintain their focus on what the struggle is all about.  Mavis Staples released a beautiful version a few years ago.

The reason I need to use this phrase as a frequent reminder to my clients is that they often get caught up in the anger, frustration and resentment of their struggle, lose sight of the purpose of their battle, and shift focus to “winning,” or worse yet, “getting revenge.”  While winning or getting revenge may provide some temporary psychological satisfaction, they will rarely earn those who are struggling for civil rights the real prize they are seeking, i.e., equal rights.

This often happens as parents struggle to obtain appropriate education for their children with disabilities.  They often experience years of frustration and want to teach the school district a lesson by taking legal action to punish those they perceive as wrongdoers.  The problem is that although it is critically important for students with disabilities to have legal rights, and to be able to enforce them, such enforcement alone will rarely provide them with the prize of a quality education.  Thus, I will often use Getting to Yes strategies as I described previously, to try to achieve a win-win solution rather than a possibly Pyrrhic victory of a legal win.  Sometimes this involves direct negotiation.  At other times it involves mediation.  In either case, it may include the threat of legal action to force the school district to take the parent’s concerns seriously. But, as I remind my clients, proceeding down a litigation path does not guarantee the prize they seek, and even if they win the case, their child’s education may not improve and relations with the school district will undoubtedly sour.

Keeping your eye on the prize also applies to systems change advocacy, which the civil rights leaders and marchers understood.  Today, our political leaders spend too much time worrying about the next sound bite, and political positioning, rather than acting as statesmen to accomplish the greater good, as I dubbed them Pressmenthe opposite of Statesmen.  I described a more productive approach for achieving progressive change for the common good in How Systems Change Happens.  In sum, systems change advocates who keep their eyes on the prize must follow these key steps.

Those who want to fight powerful, well-financed special interests, must be willing and able to use the truth, educate all concerned, organize well, litigate enough of the right cases, and be persistent. Moreover, they must do so strategically and effectively.

Anyone involved in civil rights struggles knows that it can be challenging to keep your eyes on the prize, but with good training, and able assistance, it can be done successfully.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Procrastination Nation

As our nation and the entire world breathes a collective sigh of relief that the United States will not default on its debts for the moment, one must wonder if the world’s only superpower, has earned a new moniker, Procrastination Nation. 

The dictionary definition of procrastination is:

To postpone or delay needlessly.

As James Surowiecki wrote in his article aptly entitled, Later, a few years ago in the New Yorker,

the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002. In that light, it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem.

The question is whether our federal government should be modeling such behavior when it is so remarkably unproductive.  Indeed, Surowiecki goes on to point out that,

Each year, Americans waste hundreds of millions of dollars because they don’t file their taxes on time. The Harvard economist David Laibson has shown that American workers have forgone huge amounts of money in matching 401(k) contributions because they never got around to signing up for a retirement plan. Seventy per cent of patients suffering from glaucoma risk blindness because they don’t use their eyedrops regularly. Procrastination also inflicts major costs on businesses and governments.

Indeed, this current federal shutdown has cost the nation billions and its full cost has not been totaled yet.  As the New York Times reports,

The two-week shutdown has trimmed about 0.3 percentage point from fourth-quarter growth, or about $12 billion, the forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers, based in St. Louis, recently estimated. Standard & Poor’s is more pessimistic, estimating that the shutdown will cut about 0.6 percent off inflation-adjusted gross domestic product, equivalent to $24 billion.

It would be one thing if the current Congressional dysfunction was a one-time rare occurrence, but sadly it has become a pattern of procrastination causing long-term economic harm, in addition to loss of standing in the world.  A new report, The Cost of Crisis-Driven Fiscal Policy.  This report concludes that,

Since late 2009, fiscal policy uncertainty has…lowered GDP growth by 0.3 percentage points per year, and raised the unemployment rate in 2013 by 0.6 percentage points, equivalent to 900,000 lost jobs.

Very few good decisions are made by panic.  As a nation we can do better. We must do better unless we want the whole world to just consider us the, Procrastination Nation.  

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Rather than continue this Great Dysfunction, our nation needs:

  • Real statesmen who are genuinely want to govern for the common good, not just pressmen seeking to take temporary advantage of the next sound bite;
  • Consensus Driven Leadership instead of a divide and conquer mentality; and
  • The collective will to Get to Yes, rather than constant bickering and fighting.

It is clearly easier said than done, but voters must demand it, or our nation will continue to suffer the ignominy of being known as a second rate Procrastination Nation.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Pressmanship: The Opposite of Statesmanship

As our nation watches our federal government sputter to a halt with the rest of the world wondering whether we will risk the world’s economic health for the purpose of scoring political victories, I continue to lament the lack of statesmanship, which is so very hard to find these days, as I wrote about previously.  Indeed, every day, regular Americans are impacted by the Congress’ failure to pass a budget.  Whether it is closure of local VA offices, the inability of farmers to get the information they need to make important planting and harvesting decisions, or the myriad of other large & small impacts both here and abroad, perhaps the biggest impact is the worldwide loss of respect for our nation’s ability to govern itself.

While the pundits and politicians continue to cast barbs at each other, I have been searching for the word that would best define the current paralysis plaguing our federal government.  I have been searching for the word that is the opposite of statesmanship. Remarkably, the English language does not have a word that is a true antonym for statesmanship.

Some have claimed that the Founding Fathers set up our government of checks & balances knowing that there would be conflict, thereby reducing the chances of a temporary Congressional majority or a demagogue of a President ruling by fiat.  However, as James Madison stated quite clearly in Federalist Paper # 10, entitled, The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection, 

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.

Madison also lamented about statesmen:

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

But he certainly did not envision a Congress that was prepared to violate the Constitutional requirement to pay its debts!

My search for the opposite of statesmanship finally bore fruit in an article from the London Times from 1852, entitled, Pressmanship and Statesmanship.  While the article may be somewhat outdated for the 21st century, the word pressmanship seems to be what our federal leaders are engaged in: battling for sound bites in the press to gain political advantage, rather than acting as statesmen in the national interest.

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For our nation’s sake, we can only hope that our nation’s leaders will start acting more like statesmen then pressmen.  If not, perhaps the voters will elect more statesmen in the 2014 elections and boot out the pressmen so the storm clouds can lift and the sun can shine on our nation’s Capitol.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

In Search of Statesmanship

Perhaps the greatest loss in the current fire & brimstone version of American politics is the virtually complete absence of genuine statesmanship.  The dictionary definition of “statesman,” is:

a wise, skillful, and respected political leader.

Note that there is no reference to political party or partisanship in this definition because a true statesman has the wisdom and skills to lead and not just the crass skill to win elections.

While there has been a long term American trend minimizing the value of statesmanship, the trend worsened after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United in which the majority held that under the First Amendment corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited.  This decision unleashed a torrent of campaign spending such as the nation has never seen before in which corporate interests spend as they please to buy the politicians that serve their interests.  Such an atmosphere makes principled statesmanship extremely challenging.

Fortunately, there are a few statesmen left, although at the federal level, one statesman who stands out has wisely chosen to stay out of electoral politics, perhaps to preserve his ability to be a statesman. Retired Gen. Colin Powell served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and yet due to his statesmanship, despite being considered as a possible Vice-Presidential running mate for Presidential candidate John McCain, shortly before the 2008 election, he endorsed Barack Obama during a Meet the Press interview, citing “his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities,” in addition to his “style and substance.” He additionally referred to Obama as a “transformational figure“.  Crossing party lines is a true marker of statesmanship.

At the local level, Wisconsin State Senator Dale Schultz, a long time Republican, has also shown that he is a statesman.  He has been in the Wisconsin legislature since 1982, and  his overall voting record is generally that of a conservative Republican, earning him high marks from Right to Life groups, the NRA and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.  But ever since 2011, when he voted against his party’s budget proposal to strip union collective bargaining rights, as well as against a bill that would fast track mining in Wisconsin, he has earned the ire of many in his party and may well face a challenging primary if he chooses to run for re-election.  I worked closely with him in helping to kill and ALEC sponsored special needs voucher bill in 2012.

Wisconsin is a better place because of statesmen like Dale Schultz, and America is a better country because of statesmen like Colin Powell.  The national challenge is to make our political environment more conducive for more statesmen to practice their skillful craft.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Getting to Yes in the 21st Century

In their seminal book, Getting to Yes, originally published in 1981, Roger Fisher and William Ury’s subtitle, Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, only begins to describe how this fairly short 200 page book, gives valuable lessons on the art of negotiating Win-Win solutions, instead the more commonly experienced Win-Lose, or worse yet, Lose-Lose solutions.  These lessons are needed today more than ever before.

As I previously described in, The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern, our political environment is poisoned by politicians and their funders who believe that their sole goal is to obtain or retain the political majority.  Sadly, the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass the mildest of gun control reforms when it allowed a minority of Senators to block the background checks that roughly 90% of Americans want, demonstrated that the desire to obtain a Win-Win solution was unable to carry the day in the face of the NRA’s desire to “win” at all costs.

While there are numerous other examples of the failure of our political leaders to obtain palatable outcomes on the important issues of our day, rather than point fingers and accuse one side or the other of their responsibility for this miserable failure of leadership, the lessons taught so well in Getting to Yes need revisiting in order to change the unfortunate dynamic we are currently experiencing.

Fisher and Ury explain that we all negotiate on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not.  We negotiate with our families, our co-workers, those with whom we do business, as well as in the legal and political arenas.  While it may feel good to “win” when one negotiates, the long term outcome of having someone you deal with on a regular basis “lose” the negotiation, may not be worth it in the end.

I regularly explain this to parents of children with disabilities, whom I represent, when they want to “win” their legal claim against a wrongdoing school district, but may end up destroying relationships with the very educators whom they need to provide a quality education to their children.  Thus, I regularly remind them to “keep their eye on the prize,” which is the quality education they seek for their children, and not the pound of flesh which their anger may cause them to desire.

Many people who are in the midst of a dispute assume that there will always be a winner and a loser when the dispute is resolved.  This assumption is patently false, as there are two other possible outcomes:

  1. Neither side wins because the dispute remains unresolved (e.g., Israel and Palestine); and
  2. Both sides lose because though the dispute is resolved, neither side is happy with the outcome (e.g., a lawsuit results in a Pyrrhic victory for one side because that side obtains a fraction of what it sought and spent more money on attorneys than it gained through the resolved dispute).

So, how do Fisher & Ury suggest obtaining Win-Win solutions?  They do so by focusing on five key elements of principled negotiations:

  • “Separate the people from the problem.”  In other words,  the goal in negotiating should not be beating the other side.  It should be solving the problem at hand. Successful negotiation should not be considered the equivalent of a competitive sport if the parties are truly interested in solving the problem.
  • “Focus on interests, not positions.”  In the special education advocacy example mentioned earlier, the parents’ interest is in getting their children a quality education, not in having a judge rule in their favor to prove to the school district that they were right.
  • “Invent options for mutual gain.”  This is where win-win negotiating really becomes an art form.  Creative negotiators seek opportunities where both sides can gain from the outcome.  For example, when a school is dealing with a difficult behavioral situation, the win-lose situation is the child either stays in school with continued misbehavior, or the child is expelled, relieving the school from having to deal with the child, but putting the child on the Schools to Prison Pipeline.  The win-win solution involves bringing in a behavioral expert to observe the child in school and to provide sound suggestions to educators on how to improve teaching techniques and behavioral interventions to teach the child appropriate behaviors.
  • “Insist on using objective criteria.”  All too often, negotiation takes place on emotional terms or even outright falsehoods.  We saw this in the recent background check debate where the opponents to background checks simply lied about the bill before the Senate by raising false fears that the bill would prevent sales between family members.  No problems are successfully resolved by relying on falsehoods or emotions alone.
  • “Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement)”  On a regular basis, I must counsel clients on what the likely outcome is if they fail to come to a negotiated agreement.  Without knowing this, the client (or politician) cannot truly make an informed decision as to whether to accept the offer presented.

This is not to suggest that Getting to Yes is easy.  In fact, it takes hard work, checking egos at the door, and regular reminders of what you are really seeking in the midst of your negotiation.  For nearly 28 years, I have had the professional privilege of assisting clients, non-profits and policymakers negotiate Win-Win solutions with the assistance of Getting to Yes principles.  Perhaps it is time for our political leaders to read and follow the rules of this invaluable book.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern

Our nation survived the Great Depression and it has survived the more recent Great Recession.  The question now is whether it will survive the Great Dysfunction.

While the focus of many pundits and politicians is now on Congress’ inability to pass a budget, resulting in one Continuing Resolution after another, invention of new phrases such as the Fiscal Cliff, and the current sequestration scare, a closer examination reveals that Congress has recently been unable to pass other basic legislation that is long past due.

In my own field of Education Advocacy, the most glaring example of the Great Dysfunction is the failure of Congress to reauthorize or amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The NCLB was passed with bipartisan support in 2001 under President George W. Bush.  While the basic goal of having no child fall behind in school was laudable, the law was deeply flawed in many ways, including:

  • failure to provide children who were left behind with any individual remedies;
  • utilizing blunt punishments against individual schools and whole school districts whose students were not doing well on certain performance measures, without providing the necessary support to remedy those failures; and
  • over-realiance on deeply flawed standardized tests to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing to educate children.

NCLB required that 100% of all school children be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, with dire consequences for schools and school districts that failed to meet that standard.  While that sounded nice to politicians in 2001, as 2014 loomed closer, it became exceedingly obvious that such a standard was simply impossible to meet.

NCLB was set up to be reauthorized with probable changes in 2007, with the understanding that this law was experimental and would need adjustments.  Indeed, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy worked side by side with President Bush to try to accomplish that goal prior to both of their departures from office, but due to the Great Dysfunction, they failed to achieve passage.

President Obama took up the mantle by renaming NCLB by its old name, the ESEA, and proposed sweeping changes in 2010.  In fact, the Senate Education Committee passed bi-partisan revisions in 2011.  But, once again, the Great Dysfunction took over and the bill did not pass.

Given the looming disastrous 2014 deadline, and the overriding power of the Great Dysfunction, the Obama Administration began to implement state by state waivers of the ESEA in 2012.  As of right now, 44 states along with Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have requested waivers.  The Dept. of Education has granted 34 states and the District of Columbia’s waiver requests.

Thus, the result of the Great Dysfunction in our schools is that the largest federal funding stream for our nation’s public schools is now implemented in at least 36 different ways through 35 different waivers and the remaining states continuing to operate under the now universally reviled NCLB.  While some members of Congress have chastised this overreach of Executive authority, there has simply been no progress to pass a revised ESEA.

A more detailed history of this debacle is available from the NY Times.

The question is, what will it take to emerge from the Great Dysfunction?  While many may say that we get the democracy we serve, Benjamin Disraeli put it well when he declared that,

The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

What we so desperately need are for our politicians to turn into statesmen, who recognize that the Great Dysfunction serves no one.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.