Boehner, Leadership And The Consequentialism Exception

At the end of John Beohner’s press conference responding to his sudden resignation, there was this exchange:

QUESTION: Can you talk about what you think your legacy is as you’re leaving? What are your most important accomplishments, and what are you going to do on November 1st? Are you moving to Florida?

BOEHNER: I was never in the legacy business. You all heard me say it, I’m a regular guy with a big job. And I never thought I’d be in Congress much less I’d ever be speaker. But people know me as being fair, being honest, being straightforward and trying to do the right thing every day on behalf of the country. I don’t need any more on that.

I will frequently inveigh here against the fallacy of consequentialism, the mistake of believing that whether conduct is ethical or not can be judged by its results. This leads inexorably to an “ends justifies the means” orientation and a misunderstanding of ethics. The ethical nature of an act can only be weighed according to how it was arrived at, its intent, and whether the conduct itself meets the tests of one or more ethical systems. Then moral luck takes over: an ethical decision can have catastrophic consequences and still be ethical, and the most unethical conduct can have wonderful results.

In life, however, and especially in some fields, ethics isn’t enough, and we all know it, or should. This is why consequentialism can’t be snuffed out of our thinking. There are fields of endeavor in which results are the primary standard by which we can—and should— judge whether someone was competent in the role he or she took on for themselves when others could have done the job better. In these fields being ethical isn’t enough, and often is grossly inadequate.  If one is a leader, for example, it cannot be right to lead those behind you to disaster, indeed to fail. In a field that is defined by the successful completion of a task that affects others, failure and ethics are incompatible. A failed leader is a bad leader. The objective in leadership is not just to “do the right thing,” but to succeed at ethical objectives in the right way.

As for trying? I am tempted to quote Yoda here, but will spare you that. In leadership trying is a given. It is true that not trying is unforgivable and unethical conduct, but trying to be a good leader and failing is still a failure, and is faint praise to the point of invisibility. What political leader, military leader or any other kind of leader doesn’t try? Okay, he or she tried: that clears the lowest bar on the way to ethical leadership, which means the bar is lying on the floor. If one says, as Boehner did, that “trying to do the right thing every day on behalf of the country” is his legacy, he might as well declare that he’s proud of the fact that he remembered to wear socks to work.

Leaders have to be successful, and if they are not, then they have an obligation to let someone more talented and effective try to do better. No doubt about it: quitting was the right thing to do for Boehner because he was a failed leader. Doing so didn’t magically make him a good leader, just one who is more ethical than most failed leaders, who typically hang on to power like Charlton Heston held on to his gun. For Boehner to say that having tried to do the right thing is his legacy, however, is both tragic or infuriating.

It is tragic, because it is nothing. Neville Chamberlain tried to do the right thing. Herbert Hoover tried to do the right thing. Andrew Johnson tried to do the right thing.  Robert E. Lee tried to do the right thing; Joe Paterno tried to do the right thing. Donald Rumsfeld tried to do the right thing. When your followers lie bleeding and dead on the battlefield and the entity you presumed to lead is a battered, smoking, wreck, the fact that you tried is nothing to be proud of. In leadership, you have to try, do the right thing, and win.

Boehner’s statement is infuriating, because it represents a cultural trend that obliterates leadership accountability and responsibility, and that will be crippling if it continues.

The main purveyor of this particular ethics corruption is, of course, Barack Obama. The President has persistently asked the nation to judge him on his motives rather than actual results. The most deadly incarnation of this warped approach to leadership is certain to be the Iran deal, which, when Iran violates it and prepares to render Israel and more into radioactive dust, will be praised because Obama tried to keep peace. He also tried to close Gitmo, tried to reduce the debt (actually, he didn’t) tried to work with Republicans (barely); he tried to pass effective health care reform, he tried to stimulate the economy, he tried to work with Putin, he tried to bring the races together…on and on, ad infinitum. The Obama enablers have been relentless in representing failure with good intentions as a noble form of success. In leadership, failure is never success. Failure is failure, and great leaders don’t fail.

As part of his last comment, Boehner said,

“I do know this. I’m doing this today for the right reasons, and you know what? The right things will happen as a result.”

Wrong again. Doing something for the right reasons doesn’t make it the right thing to do, and the right things will not necessarily happen as a result. One right thing will necessarily happen when Boehner steps down, however: a failed leader will have relinquished his position to give someone else a chance.

16 thoughts on “Boehner, Leadership And The Consequentialism Exception

  1. He should have left a long time ago. With a Republican majority, he had an opportunity to reverse some of Obama’s most egregious policies and he failed miserable time after time. Hopefully, his successor won’t be a spineless jellyfish. But I’m not betting on it.

  2. Being responsible for results is not just important for leadership. It’s also important for engineering, for professionals in general, and for being an adult. Making things happen even though it’s difficult is what separates actual adults from people who are merely allowed to vote or drink alcohol.

    Somehow the people of the United States allowed politicians to convince them that the American Dream was not about freedom from elites preventing one from reaping the rewards of one’s hard work, but rather about having the right to make a certain amount of money for a certain amount of effort, and never having to learn how to apply that effort in a useful way.

    The world is going to continue to have really stupid problems until we address this one. I do, however, have a plan, and am currently working on implementing it.

  3. Consequentialism is just coming to the forefront right now because it’s becoming increasingly evident Obama came in with high hopes and is leaving with not much more than high hopes unrealized. The same is true of Boehner, although perhaps for different reasons. Something else that both have in common is that their enablers/defenders are now using the impossibility/he did his best defense.

    We’ve heard things to the effect of Obama did his best, and he would have done more, but from day one the GOP was dead set against him and once they bamboozled the American people into giving them another shot at Congress which they didn’t deserve, they stymied the President at every turn. Now you’ll hear that Boehner was a good guy trying to do the right thing, not rock the boat, and hold the line so as not to mess up the chance for the White House next year, but those undisciplined Tea Partiers kept pushing for stuff that couldn’t be done and was going to hurt the party in the long run.

    Real leaders find a way to work with those they have to work with, but a trend is emerging whereby leaders seem to think they can just ignore those who don’t agree with them and try to shut them out of the conversation, hoping they’ll give up and go away. Obama MIGHT have justifiably thought that back in 2009 when he was holding all the cards and it looked like the Republican Party might have been broken for good, but he should not have missed the signals at the end of that year that that was not the case. Indeed no wise person should ever believe that a party has been broken for good, that’s only happened once more than 200 years ago. Boehner NEVER had reason to believe he could ignore the more right-wing section of the party, yet he did, and his referring to Ted Cruz as a “jackass” should tell you all you need to know.

    Leaders ignore and rationalize at their peril. Dare I say we will be in for a TIDE of rationalization when Carter finally leaves us? After all, he cared so much…

    • Thanks…I left this out because the post was getting long, but you are right. When leaders fail of late, their defenders immediately argue that the job is “now” impossible. Those excuses started for Obama more than a year ago. Indeed, it may be impossible for him, just as being an effective Speaker was impossible for Boehner. That doesn’t mean either job is really impossible.

      • Yw, Jack. I guess part of the blame for all of this lies with party leaders who run candidates for high posts they can’t NOT know would be in over their heads if they got elected.

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