By Thom Little, Ph.D

Coming to you from Gate B18 at the Boise Airport in Boise, Idaho, headed home after a great couple of days at the 7th annual meeting of the Conference of State Majority Leaders. It was great to be with and learn from so many friends from across the country. We shared ideas and thoughts on economic development, ethics, leadership and communications as well as strategies for more effectively serving as Majority Leaders.

While I found all of the sessions useful and engaging, I was particularly struck by some advice offered by C.L. “Butch” Otter, who spoke on leadership lessons learned over more than a half century in business, military and politics. Otter served four years in the Idaho House, was lieutenant  governor for fourteen years, spent six years in Washington representing the state’s 1st Congressional District, and served as governor for twelve years. From 1986 until his retirement in 2018, Otter won ten consecutive elections!

Reflecting on his experiences in business, the US Army and politics, Otter offered program participants his “Four C’s” for effective decision making: Conscience, Constitution, Constituency and Compassion. 

Conscience. First, notes Otter, “Can I live with the decision that I made?” Everyone should have a core set of values that define who he or she is and what he or she stands for (or will not stand for). Will the decision you make fit within those core values? Will you be able to look yourself in the mirror the next morning? While satisfying one’s conscience is important it is not enough- as Dr. Ed Freeman of the Darden School of Business reminds his students, “I know you have to live with yourself but we have to live with you, too!” This leads us to the other three more outward looking factors.

Constitution. In America, every elected public servant takes an oath promising to govern according to and within the constraints of a governing document. For state leaders, that document is the state’s constitution. Keeping this oath requires public servants to ask two questions when making governing decisions. First, is the question at hand one you are allowed to make within the constitutional confines of the office or is it a decision that should be made by someone else? Second, if the decision is within your constitutional purview, what is the constitutionally sound decision? You may have to make decisions that you don’t want to make because you have promised to govern by the constitution.

Constituencies. Few if any decisions made by an elected official affect just him or her. Indeed, most of the time the decisions made by an elected official may affect the lives of hundreds, thousands or millions of people. In order to make the best decisions, public officials need to talk to those who will be impacted and strive to understand and consider all of the constituencies that will feel the impact of that decision. This requires taking time to communicate, study and consider the various perspectives relative to the decision. While you may be making the decisions, the decisions are not about you.

Compassion. In considering those who will be impacted by the decision, it is not enough to just consider the legal or financial impacts. The constituencies are not faceless entities, but feeling, hurting, thinking human beings. Sometimes your position and your constitutional obligations will require you to make difficult decisions that negatively impact the lives of others. In such cases, it is critical that you sincerely express your compassion and empathy to those constituencies who will be hurt. For example, Governor Otter noted the most difficult decisions he had to make during his forty years of public service concerned the death penalty and before making those decisions he met with the families of the victims as well as the family of the defendant to explain his reasoning and express his compassion for both.

In light of Governor Otter’s four decades of public service and his success in ten straight elections, the “Four C’s” seems to have worked pretty well for him and you might want to consider a similar framework as you continue to serve the public in your state.