Before I left for the Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday, I stopped by the public library to borrow some audio books for the five-hour drive to Graves County and the five-hour drive back.
One was leadership consultant Stephen Covey lecturing on his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey has sold millions of copies of his book, and some of America's most successful executives have said those "habits" transformed their lives and companies.
As I drove down the Western Kentucky Parkway listening to Covey, I was struck by two thoughts: The first was that the success habits he recommends for people and organizations are just common sense. The second was that American politics violates every one of them.
I would soon hear ample evidence of that, both from the politicians who spoke at the annual church picnic that kicks off Kentucky's fall campaign season and from the thousands of partisans who cheered and jeered them.
This could help explain why, rather than being "highly effective," government has become increasingly dysfunctional. Take, for example, the U.S. Senate, where the main warriors at this year's Fancy Farm Picnic — Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul — hope to serve.
Last week's issue of The New Yorker magazine had a fascinating piece about the Senate by journalist George Packer. The article, "The Empty Chamber," described how the legislative body that the Founding Fathers intended as a place for reasoned debate has become hobbled by the destructive behavior of Republicans and Democrats alike. Many senators seem more concerned with money, power and petty politics than with governing.
Consider Covey's seven recommended habits in the context of today's political environment:
■ Be proactive. Don't wait for a crisis to react, Covey says. Politicians are the most reactive people on the planet, afraid to take a stand or make a tough decision unless public opinion, often in response to a crisis, forces them to. As a result, many complex problems just keep getting bigger.
■ Begin with the end in mind. Covey asks his audience to imagine what they would like others to say about them when they die. Given the large egos of many politicians, you would think they would want something better than "he/she was a money-grubbing tool of corporate interests."
■ Put first things first. Peace, prosperity and justice, anyone?
■ Think "win-win." This is a big one. In today's political environment, even an honest change of mind is labeled "flip- flopping" or "waffling." Compromise is called weakness. America is pretty evenly split between red and blue — in the case of the 2000 presidential election, remarkably so. Yet politics is increasingly a zero-sum game. In the Senate, whichever party is out of power wages a war of obstruction against the party in power. They simply fight to regain control, at which point the other party will do the same to them.
■ Seek to understand, then to be understood. What politician today seeks to understand the other party's concerns? After all, that might change a mind, lead to compromise or accidently create a "win-win."
■ Synergize. "To put it simply, synergy means 'two heads are better than one,'" Covey says. Again, this is an alien concept in politics. Many would rather walk barefoot over broken glass than admit that someone in the other party has a good idea.
■ Sharpen the saw. This is not the same as sharpening the knife so you can stick it in your opponent's back. Covey is talking about expanding your mind through reading, study and social interaction. In The New Yorker, Packer pointed out that bitter partisanship in the Senate has increased as social interaction between Democrats and Republicans has decreased. It is easier to call the person across the aisle Satan's henchman if you never play golf together or share a meal.
But we can't just blame the politicians. They often are responding to voters who marinate their minds in segments of the media that have discovered there are big profits to be made by dishing up distortion, propaganda and extremism.
America would be more successful if politicians — and the voters who elect them — applied Covey's seven habits, which have been so successful in business and personal development, to politics and governance.
"We already know," Covey says as I roll down the highway toward Fancy Farm, "that what is common sense is not common practice."