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Winning the Political Game: How to Make Tough Decisions and Survive

Every day we hear citizens complain, for a variety of reasons, about decisions made by political leaders. So here’s my annual column about how to make tough political decisions – and survive.

We elect politicians to make tough decisions. That’s what elected leaders do. Many big political decisions are very close calls. Most have been debated for a long time, and have strong advocates on both sides. Tough, difficult decisions are made at all levels of politics, not just by state and national leaders. If these decisions were easy they would have been solved long ago.

However, you can make tough decisions and survive. Most reasonable people will accept the fact that you decide against their wishes as long as they feel they've been listened to, had a chance for input, and that all sides were considered and the process was fair. They need to feel you're making an informed decision after carefully weighing both sides. If people don't feel like they had any input, or that the process was unfair, they will be angry and feel betrayed. There are also unreasonable people out there who will never be satisfied no matter what you do. Happily, while they are very vocal, they are not large in number. And, remember, success in politics requires only 50% support, plus one.

Also, making and announcing the right decision, while important, is only a part of successful positioning on big issues.

An important rule exists in politics which states that only 50% of the success of a political decision or announcement is the correctness of the decision. The other 50% of success is how the decision or announcement is made – whose advice is sought before finalizing the decision, how much support is pulled together, who is informed in advance of the public announcement, and the timing and circumstances of the announcement.

Big decisions and big announcements should not be made in a vacuum or without a lot of planning. Mobilizing allies, determining the right timing and setting, deciding who should be informed and who should be spokespersons, and what follow-up is necessary, are all crucial components of a successful announcement or initiative. It’s dumb to announce a highly controversial decision without doing the preparatory and follow-up work.

If proper steps are followed, then even those who strongly disagree with the position will feel that they at least had a chance to be heard, that the leader carefully weighed both sides, and that they were properly notified in advance. They will then be much less likely to fight the decision.

Making big decisions is the top responsibility of political leaders. Don’t shy away from tough decisions and look wishy-washy. Invest your political capital. Columnist George Will once wrote that leaders should not avoid the tough issues: "Conflict avoidance becomes habitual. Risk averse politicians are constantly at risk. The rule regarding power is use it or lose it."

So make the tough decision. But do it smartly.