By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.

As a 20 year-old college student, I was privileged to serve as an intern in the North Carolina General Assembly during the 1985 legislative session. Working for Senate Majority Leader Kenneth C. Royall, Jr. taught me many things about leadership but one of my most vivid memories and greatest lessons occurred on the street instead of in the building. As I was waiting to cross Jones Street to deliver a note to the Governor’s office (this was before email), I happened to overhear a conversation between two men. As the light turned red, the younger man noted, “Aren’t you going to cross – the light is red?” Staying put, the older gentleman responded, “Don’t watch the light, watch the cars. You ever heard of anyone getting hit by a light?”

Although this conversation gave me a good laugh for a moment, it has given me a lesson for a lifetime and it is this lesson, illustrated by this story, that I want to pass along to our leaders as we enter into a new year and new legislative session: “Watch the cars, not the light.”

All too often, we get caught up focusing on the wrong things. Our attention is drawn to the shiny objects and the bright lights, fleeting in impact and content. We want to eat the candy that gives us a quick rush, but not the broccoli  that will sustain us (with apologies to George H. W. Bush). We want to buy the sports car when we know our wife will say no and our children will have nowhere to sit.

As you enter into a new legislative year and new session, I humbly submit some “lights” for you to avoid and some “cars” that you might want to pay attention to.

Don’t watch the lights. In politics in general, and especially in an election year, it is easy to get caught up focusing on things that look good in the short term, but whose long-term impact is negligible or even negative. I would suggest three “lights” that might distract you from what really matters: the election, the promises and the band aids.

The Election. While elections surely matter and position the winners to govern, they cannot be the final objective – they must be the means to an end – meaning better policy and a better life for constituents. Be careful how you campaign – while personal and bitter campaigns may gain you a few votes in the fall (the evidence is not clear), they may poison the waters of the institution to the point where gridlock prevents meaningful action on key issues.

The Promises. In the heat of a campaign, under the glare of the cameras or as directed by political consultants, it is tempting to make unrealistic promises to the voters. We can cut taxes, increase spending and balance the budget. We can increase teacher salaries by 50 percent without raising taxes or cutting spending in other areas. While such promises might deliver this election, when they go unfulfilled, you will face not only failed policies, but also angry and disillusioned voters.

The Band Aids. It’s often easy to offer policy proposals that look good in the short term (i.e., during the election cycle), but have significant negative impact in the long term. For example, using one time revenues to fill holes in the state budget may work in the short term, but may create significant problems down the road. Short term fixes usually lead to short term rewards, but long term problems, in terms of both politics and policy.

Watch the Cars. On the other hand, leaders who wish to be successful in the long term, in terms of both politics and policy, need to keep their eyes on the following “cars:” the issues, the solutions and the people.

The Issues. Of late, campaigns have become as much (or more) about personalities than policies. Campaigns that run on personalities often leave candidates, parties and caucuses without a referendum for governing. Campaigns run on solid and sound positions, on issues that matter to the voters, pave the way for candidates, parties and caucuses to act decisively and with public support once in office.

The Solutions. Long term success is based on providing solutions that address and solve the challenges that concern voters. Voters are looking for solutions more than promises – they want policies, for example, that lead to a strong economy, educated children and security.

The People. My father used to say, “Take care of those who take care of you.” In politics, this means do what you can to take care of the people and voters who put you in office and can take you out of office. Answer the emails, the calls and the letters. Keep in touch on social media. Go to the Moose Lodge and the Kiwanis meetings. Help grandma get her Medicare supplement. Avoid the band aids, promises and personal campaigns that have come to define politics today.

So far, at the national level, this election cycle has been like no other. On one side, the top three candidates have no political experience and on the other side, a Socialist US Senator is in a statistical tie with the presumed nominee in Iowa and New Hampshire. The campaign promises to be the most expensive, negative and bitter in recent memory and perhaps (definitely in terms of expense) of all time. While someone will eventually win this race, it is likely that he or she will find it difficult to govern because they watched the lights not the cars. Don’t let that happen to you!