by Bob Lewis

A CIO’s-Eye View of the Debt Ceiling Crisis

Aug 03, 20114 mins
Business IT AlignmentCollaboration SoftwareGovernment

The debt ceiling crisis was an economic matter. How it was handled? You can learn a lot from this about what to do in your capacity as business leader ... and what not to do.

I’ll probably regret writing this piece, and I apologize in advance for so overtly bringing in, not just the headlines, but an attitude about them. But if I wrote about anything other than the debt ceiling I’d feel like Nero with his fiddle.

And, two very big principles to be learned from the debt-ceiling fiasco are directly relevant to business leadership. You and (I hope) every other business executive in the United States would do well to apply both of them in your day-to-day work.


The first principle is a matter I’ve written about several times, both in this space and in Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology. The acronym is ROT and stands for “Relationships Outlive Transactions.”

It’s a principle the Tea Party and its representatives don’t appear to understand. Long before the debt ceiling became a crisis … before the last election, in fact … a prominent Republican politician (John Boehner, I think) defended Nancy Pelosi as a person at a Tea Party rally and was booed for his trouble. He wasn’t defending her politics, or her tactics. He simply pointed out that she’s a good person regardless of what you think of her politics, and that was considered horrible.

I’m not going to go into a who-started-it analysis. Doing so would be about as useful as figuring out whether the Hatfields or McCoys were to blame for their legendary feud.

Blame isn’t the point. It’s the situation as it is today that matters, because every participant in every dysfunctional relationship has a decision to make every day … whether to escalate or do their part to help dial it down.

And right now, it’s the Tea Party caucus members’ failure to understand the importance of dialing it down that matters. Eventually, they’ll face the consequences, because the most important relationships are the ones you form with your political opponents. Those are the relationships you have to be able to rely on when the situation gets thick.

Don’t make this mistake in your relationships with other players in your company. The moment you make disagreements and decisions that don’t go your way personal and acrimonious, the next time there’s a decision to be made, you won’t have much influence.


In the 7/30/2011 Star Tribune was an commentary by David Strom that spoke admiringly of the Tea Party caucus members for sticking to their principles.

Which they have, and sticking to one’s principles is, as Everyone Knows, a Good Thing.

What Strom and the people he admires fail to grasp is that those who disagree with them have principles too … principles they believe in just as strongly and passionately.

Juveniles deal with this sort of situation by demonizing whoever disagrees with them. Their opponents become bad people, which makes ignoring what they want just fine. They’re them — they’re stupid, evil, inept, smell bad, and their mothers dress them funny.

It’s this approach to disagreement that leads to brawls between fans of different British soccer teams.

A mark of personal maturity is recognizing that when two people disagree on a subject, their opinions can be equally valid. Different perspectives, experience, underlying assumptions, values, and planning horizons can lead to very different conclusions. (“Can be” isn’t “must be,” though. When I disagree with a flat-earther, I’m right.)

Which means people don’t compromise because they’re weak. They compromise because they’re mature enough to realize political opponents aren’t enemies — they’re just people who have reached a different conclusion.

Political conservatives take as a guiding principle that government is best when it governs least. Political liberals take as a guiding principle John Rawls’s idea that a fair society is one you’d choose to live in without knowing in advance where you’d be born into it. (I won’t comment on either the level of correlation or the level of consistency with which the Republican party adheres to political conservatism or the Democratic party to liberalism.)

In a calm conversation, liberals and conservatives would acknowledge the validity of the other side’s guiding principle, which means they’d agree that the challenge is finding the proper balance between the two.

Regrettably, we aren’t having a calm conversation.

In the end, the problem with Washington DC isn’t politics. It’s the absence of politics. Politics is the practice through which people who disagree with each other reach a path forward they might not agree with, but can agree to.

As a business leader, you need to excel at this practice. And you need to encourage excellence in it with everyone you work with.

The alternative? There isn’t an alternative. Businesses that fail at this fail.


For this week’s great quotation, click here.