In Praise of Flip Flopping

(image via Pablo Garcia Saldana)

(image via Pablo Garcia Saldana)

I have been watching the news with interest lately as the term "flip-flopper" has been bandied about. It seems to be the strategy for painting a candidate as weak or unsure. In defending themselves, candidates have continually used the phrase, "As I have said all along..." to justify their positions. They bristle at the word, as pundits and political surrogates continually try and paint them with this brand.

I could not disagree more with this philosophical view.

In my experience, great leaders continually reassess situations and only the very foolish or fundamentally flawed will hold a position long after wisdom or judgment informs otherwise. A very strong case can be made that our current president has consistently held to decisions long after a changing environment would guide otherwise. By his own admission, Bush says he is not "self-reflective" as if this is a point of pride. The ability to learn from our mistakes, admit error and change course is the first thing you teach MBA students or even your own child as a key to success. But somehow this has not been the case with our current political environment. By using the term over and over (in one random two hour span of watching CNN I heard it 12 times) we only serve to solidify our national obsession with stubbornness and lack of flexibility. We think this is a good thing. It is not.

Show me a business leader who has not over time changed his or her mind on significant strategy issues and I will show you an unemployed one. Good leaders set strong direction. Great leaders continually adjust within essential key values to a changing world around them. Are you the same person today that you were ten years ago? Are the choices you made then the best ones for today? If you wouldn't wear the same hair style or clothing that you did in 1998, why would you continue on important matters to hold to positions that no longer make sense? This is the craziness of the "flip-flopper" position.

There is a difference, of course, between changing one's position because of new information versus political advantage. The first shows deep leadership character while the second has an odor of cynicism surrounding it. However, I would find it refreshing if a candidate said, "I used to think about this one way, but I have since learned otherwise and now think about it differently." I value one's ability to learn from mistakes, to admit error or to model growth. It is something our current president seems unwilling to do and our presidential candidates seem to avoid all together.

I might suggest instead a national day of flip-flopping where all of us admit the mistakes we have made in the past decade and what we have learned or changed because of it. I think it would be good for us. I know it would be good for our country.

LeadershipDavid Baum