Guru no help in budget battle

October 30, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

OK, so maybe no one listens to a mere newspaper columnist. But what about a world-renowned management guru, someone who has sold more than 15 million copies of his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, advised Fortune 500 companies and presidents alike, and been part of the reading list for an MBA class that Oprah Winfrey once taught? Would you listen to that guy?

Would you listen to Stephen R. Covey?

I'd been feeling rather pessimistic about the special session of the General Assembly that got under way last night, mainly because of all the preliminary bickering - over Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan for making up a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall, over whether taxes need to be raised or if spending could just be cut, over legalizing slots, over whether to even have the special session at all.

You need a scorecard just to keep track of all the combatants in the budget battle - O'Malley vs. the comptroller, Peter Franchot; Senate President Mike Miller vs. House Speaker Mike Busch; Democrats vs. Republicans; Democrats vs. Democrats - so how on earth were all these warring parties going to come to any sort of agreement?

Could even Covey help the state's elected officials find their way to a highly effective solution for closing the budget gap?

As it turns out, Covey yesterday happened to be hosting his monthly "webinar," an online seminar in which he speaks on a topic and then takes questions from the audience. Yesterday's topic seemed particularly apropos on a day in which legislators were heading into a special session: The Four Imperatives of Leadership.

Already, I felt reassured. If the habits of highly effective people can be reduced to seven, and the imperatives of leadership to four, surely there is a simple, easily quantifiable solution for how one governor, 47 senators and 141 delegates can settle their differences on how to balance the state budget.

As Covey was speaking, I started trying to type a short question about a complicated subject into the tiny space allotted. I decided not to refer to the slots referendum (Covey is a Mormon, so maybe gambling would be off-limits). I didn't think I could explain the nuances of the Thornton law regarding education funding, or the logic of a ban on indoor smoking preceding a proposed increase in cigarette taxes in so small a space.

As questions started to pile up, and Covey gave a lengthy answer to the first one, I began to fear he wouldn't get around to mine. But then, jumping over a couple of questions in the queue ahead of me, the webinar moderator said, "We have a question from Jean."

Yes! I'm listening, oh wise man.

"How do you get beyond organizational in-fighting," the moderator read my question to Covey, "so that everyone is working together to make the tough but necessary decisions?"

"Jean," Covey said, gazing rather sternly, I thought, through my computer monitor, "this in-fighting is a symptom of ... chronic problems."

Oh yes, Dr. Covey, I wanted to interject, and you don't even know the half of it. You are so right when you say the in-fighting can become egocentric. You must have been listening to the Bob and Kendel Ehrlich radio show this weekend, when the former governor, a Republican who pushed unsuccessfully for slots, complained that the only reason Busch, a Democrat, was finally agreeing to a slots measure was because Ehrlich was no longer in office. (Not to mention that Republican legislators who supported slots during Ehrlich's term are now opposing O'Malley's proposal for a slots referendum - because, as House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said on the program, "we should have done this some time ago.")

I was going to explain all this to Covey, but he was off on his own tangent, telling me that the solution started with me - I promise not to get all egocentric about it - and I needed to start modeling the kind of behavior that inspires trust, that I needed to understand and also make myself understood, that if I persisted in this way I could end up with the highly desirable "third alternative." Scrolling around on Covey's Web site, I discovered the "third alternative" is a sort of win-win state of organizational nirvana, neither my way nor your way but a third way that is superior to either of our ways.

I would have told the good doctor that when the subject is tax increases - even here in Maryland, where the gas tax rate hasn't gone up in 15 years and where the income tax rate is so flat you're charged at the same rate whether you make $3,000 a year or $3 million - there are those for whom the only way is no way.

But he had already moved on to a question from Greg.

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