The political parlor games are in full swing regarding the 2018 Senate election, with an abundance of attention on who will, who won’t, who might and who should run to be Utah’s senator.
There is a leadership void in Washington. Lack of vision, lack of principled debate and compromise, lack of integrity and lack of moral conviction have exposed the political left and the political right as being more concerned with the preservation of their own power, money and influence than on the preservation of the nation and the prosperity of the American people.
I spent over 20 years as a business consultant, with a heavy emphasis on studying and teaching the principles of leadership around the world. When I was asked to serve for a season as a chief of staff in the United States Senate, I was shocked to find so few in Congress who understood, believed or were committed to the kind of servant-leadership the Founding Fathers promoted and lived. (To be clear, there are men and women in Congress, from both political parties, who fit the definition and personification of authentic leader. Sadly, they are few in number — which makes me admire them even more.)
We should be able to call our elected representatives leaders — but far too often we can’t. I saw in the halls of Congress everything you would expect to see in a junior high turf battle, and in most cases and places it was the antithesis of leadership.
Leadership is not a zero-sum game. Sadly, President Ronald Reagan’s saying that “there is no limit to what a person can do if they don’t mind who gets the credit” has been senatorially twisted into “there is no limit to what a member can do, as long as certain senior senators get the credit.” Politics is a zero-sum game — leadership is not.
Leadership is not about division. Politicians and outside interests, driven by their own self-interest, raise hundreds of millions of dollars every year by promoting anger, angst, fear and frustration as they ask for donations. They run campaigns on wedge issues, convincing us that we are too divided as Americans to deal with immigration, health care or tax reform. We should remember that as long as they convince us that we are too divided to address real issues, it gives Congress an excuse to do nothing and the president (of either party) the excuse to do what they want by way of executive order. Solving the problems of hardworking Americans is not Washington’s priority, and too many politicians play along because it solves their political problems.
We should only elect leaders who are willing to challenge members of both parties to live up to ideals they profess to believe and unite around common solutions for the good of the country.
Leadership is not about comfort zones and the status quo. As a non-political person going to Washington, I was stunned at the lengths the “leaders” of both parties would go to so that no member would have to take a hard vote. Perpetual re-election is of paramount importance. That is why hundreds of good policy bills from the House are sent, then sentenced, to die in the Senate.
Leadership is not about a vision of yourself in office. Leadership is about a vision for the people you represent and for the country. We have lived without such vision for far too long in this nation.
With my experience as a backdrop, and with the encouragement of many across the political spectrum, I considered a run for the U.S. Senate. I began with a listening tour and met with an array of people — because I believe a leader should talk to everyone to find common ground, explore possibilities and come up with better solutions.
I met with influencers ranging from Steve Bannon to those who would be classified as “Never Trumpers.” The common thread that emerged from all of my meetings was that the Trump loyalists and the never-Trump camps are completely united on one thing — their absolute frustration with the lack of leadership in the United States Senate.
In considering a run, I thought about the questions I always asked potential candidates when I was vetting them in my role as chief of staff. The questions? “What is the agenda or vision you want to share with the citizens that will make the pain and sacrifice of a campaign worth it, even if you run and lose?” And: “How will you make a difference out of office versus in office?”
For the past 18 months, as president of Sutherland Institute, I have worked to elevate dialogue, shape conversations and drive discussions around an agenda centered in Utah principles and policies — principles that have produced our strong free market economy and robust institutions of civil society.
I had two significant moments of clarity in my decision-making process. First, I saw anew something Sutherland Institute founder Gaylord Swim said back in 2004, “Utahns have the capacity, the character, and thus the potential to lead out among the states. The Sutherland Dream is that we will promote principled patterns for governing and adopt and implement public policies that will be the envy of, and set a standard for, the nation.” This has become a driving force for me.
The second moment came in a conversation I was having about ways to shape the national dialogue and debate on critical issues. In referencing the Bannon meeting and the need for more individuals and organizations to engage, I said, “It is ironic and even tragic that more than any one senator and probably more than all 100 senators combined — you have one guy with a website who is shaping the conversation the country is going to have for the next year.”
My own words struck a painful nerve and an inspiring chord at the same moment. And while it really isn’t just one guy, it is a very small number of operatives and organizations from the left and the right that are doing much more to frame our national conversation than the entirety of the Senate.
I have decided that I will not seek a seat in the United States Senate. Instead, I will focus my effort and attention on the desperate need in the nation for strengthening and building leaders while advancing real dialogue about the principles and policies that will create a better tomorrow for America.
In the coming months, among a number of exciting initiatives and partnerships, I will guide the launch of a 501(c)(4) organization, Sutherland Leadership Center, with a mission to train, support and empower elected officials, candidates, staff and engaged citizens with the strategies, structures and disciplines required to transform institutions, congressional offices and local communities.
To me there is nothing more important. We have become far too comfortable settling for sorry excuses for leadership — and far too accustomed to the consultant-certified, pollster-approved, politically expedient election messaging we get from politicians. Instead, we need to expect and demand leaders with the skills and principles required to have thoughtful, and at times uncomfortable, conversations.
Utah has sent principled leaders to Washington in the past, and I am confident we will do so again in 2018. The state of affairs in our country indicates we are entering one of democracy’s most difficult exams — one that will require real profiles in courage from true leaders. We must elect representatives who will challenge the status quo and who won’t be content with incremental improvement to an institution in need of quantum change. Democracy demands more, and Utahns and Americans deserve better.
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.