Leadership. Few words in the English language are used – or, frankly, misused – more often. But, to paraphrase a former Supreme Court justice, you know it when you see it.
Many see it in one Midwestern state.
For years, the so-called “Rust Belt” states have faced severe economic and fiscal challenges. A recent report noted that these problems have often been made worse due to budget gimmicks and the failure of many state leaders to make tough choices and properly plan for the future.
But not in Indiana. When Governor Mitch Daniels took office in 2004, his state was in a terrible condition. He faced a $200 million deficit. The budget hadn’t been balanced in 7 years, and businesses and residents were fleeing. Yet, Indiana is now thriving. It earns high marks for its low-tax environment and minimal regulations. Debts have been paid off and the state is running a surplus. In fact, Indiana now ranks in the top 5 for best states in which to do business and the state earned its first triple-A bond rating from Standard and Poors in 2008. One journalist wrote that “no other state in the Midwest – all of them, like Indiana, dependent on a declining manufacturing sector – can match this record.”
How was Daniels able to do it? In short, because he wasn’t afraid to make tough choices despite the political costs. He promoted a series of policy changes – including labor reforms, spending cuts, and a reduction in the state bureaucracy – and his administration devised, and incentivized workers to meet, performance formulas for state agencies.
Daniels’s reforms weren’t always popular, and it took time for them to work. In fact, they could have cost him the next election, but that was a risk he was willing to take – because he strongly believed his policies were necessary to make things better for Hoosiers. “You can only do the kinds of things we did if you don’t really give a damn,” he said. “I wouldn’t have liked to lose… [b]ut if I thought about that nothing would have gotten done.”
Voters actually ended up rewarding Daniels for his serious, and sometimes painful, reform efforts. In fact, he won re-election in 2008 with more votes than any other candidate in Indiana’s history.
In politics, as in life, popularity is always fleeting. But that’s not what’s important. It’s accomplishments that are important, and it’s with accomplishments that the course of a city, a state, or even a whole country can be changed for the better. I am always impressed by those who resist the pressure to make the easy choice rather than the correct choice that makes things better in the long run. Sometimes that means doing something that’s unpopular. It may mean taking a big risk and making the case to persuade others you’re right – even if they disagree.
Leadership doesn’t always mean drastically changing course, but it does mean that leaders with tough jobs need to develop bold, detailed plans and be ready to defend them, because they will likely face headwinds. Real leaders are instinctively skeptical of intellectual fads, and they are wary of jumping on the bandwagon or giving into social pressures when dealing with challenges. Real leaders understand that nobody possesses a monopoly on wisdom. Real leaders avoid the herd mentality.
Governor Daniels is one of those real leaders. I will be sad to see him leave office next year. However, he can do so with pride in his accomplishments, knowing that he made the lives of his people better by resisting pressure to continue the status quo and defer difficult decisions.