By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.

During the first week of July, I was honored to spend three days with state legislators from all over the country under the tutelage of Dr. Ed Freeman and other fine members of the faculty of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Among the many insightful and thoughtful observations made by the faculty, I was struck by one in particular: the idea that profit is not the sole purpose of a successful business, but rather an outcome or byproduct of a bigger purpose. According to Dr. Freeman, profit is a function of “managing the relationships between stakeholders, customers, employees and the community.” A business that is run for profit rather than purpose will ultimately fail.

When a company seeks only profits with no consideration for customer service, employee satisfaction, product quality or community impact you get Enron, AIG and Tyco. When profits become purpose, you get insider trading and a stock market crash that brings the world to the edge of financial ruin.

As I pondered this idea, I wondered how it might apply to politics. What would be the equivalent of financial profit in the political realm- what do all politicians seek in the same way that all businesses seek profits? Votes. The currency of politics is votes – getting more votes than the other person so you can win an election.

What happens when politicians put votes before purpose or, worse yet, make votes the sole purpose for their efforts? You get public servants willing to serve only those who can fund their efforts to get re-elected. When re-election becomes purpose, legislators vote for legislation that is popular but bad or ineffective. When re-election becomes purpose, officials ignore sound public policy for short term political gain. When re-lection becomes purpose, you get Watergate, Abscam, Bridgegate and various other scandals that have plagued state governments and cost several legislators their posts in recent years.

Does this mean that politicians should not try to win elections and companies should not try to make a profit? Of course not. A politician who loses elections will last about as long as a company that loses money – not very long. However, just as profits are the byproduct of a company that manages the relationships noted above, a legislator who wins re-election should do so by effectively managing the needs of the district, the state, the nation and the common good. If a legislator does that, good things (like re-election) are likely to happen.

A late great Aunt of mine used to say that you should never marry for money, but it should be just as easy to love a rich man. Likewise, I am not asking politicians to fall on their swords and sacrifice victory for purpose. I am, however, suggesting that you can have both if you let serving others (the district, state, etc), rather than re-election, be the purpose and objective for which you strive. In other words, if you marry for love, you might just find that you get wealth too!

So, how do you get the best of both worlds (policy success and re-election)? To go back to the business analogy, keep your eyes on what really matters: making sure that you are aware of the needs and interests of all of those around you and making a sincere effort to address them. Build and maintain relationships with your constituents. Be keenly aware of the challenges faced by your constituents and your state and understand what government can and cannot do to address them. Consider the long term consequences of your actions, even if it may be to the detriment of short term goals. Take the bull by the horns: when you see a problem, use your power of “convening” to call together the stakeholders and help figure out how to solve the problem.

Also, remember that while you may represent the 9th District or the 19th District of your chamber, you are also a member of the North Carolina General Assembly or the North Dakota Senate or the New Jersey Assembly and you have obligations to the state as well as your little electoral corner of it. Sometimes, you have to look beyond your friends, your constituents and your district to what is best for the state and even the nation.

Of course, there is no guarantee that if you do all of these things you will win re-election any more than there is a guarantee that a company will always make a profit. However, your chances are pretty good and, even if you don’t win re-election, you will be able to look at yourself in the mirror knowing you did the right thing and I suspect others, including your friends and family, will be able to do the same. All of a sudden losing an election, should it happen, may not seem so bad!