Making and Communicating Difficult Decisions with Confidence
An Interview with Dana Perino
How has your background and career shaped your view of ethics?
I grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming and a culture that embodied a western ethos that can best be summed up as “you are not better than anyone else and nobody else is better than you.” My grandfather, who was well known in the community, personified this thinking in his public roles and helped shape my belief in always doing the right thing, owning up to mistakes and acknowledging when something isn’t going in the right direction.
In my career, I will always remember one conversation that occurred when I became press secretary for President George W. Bush. The President’s Chief of Staff at the time, Andy Card, said “you’re getting a wonderful opportunity to work in the White House, but remember that you are here to serve everyone in America, not just the President.” He reminded me that I had a moral obligation to the American people, and that obligation would require adhering to my principles.
How would that sense of obligation come into play – whether in the White House or in other career experiences?
Having a moral obligation, regardless of where you work, goes beyond one’s own principles. You can’t stay on the sidelines as a conscientious objector when you serve in a public role or work in business. There’s a responsibility to help ensure that the organization is performing at its best. And that might mean putting yourself in a very uncomfortable position to alert management and leadership to something that you’re concerned about, or, if your concerns are ignored, resigning if you believe the situation is untenable. I never was put in that position at the White House, but I understood my obligation and had my eyes and ears open all the time.
However, I once had an early-career job in local government where I only lasted 6 weeks. I witnessed the central figure doing what I thought crossed the line of what was appropriate and legal when it came to campaign fundraising. I resigned and it was one of the best things I ever did. I am fortunate to have a supportive husband who wouldn’t have me compromise my principles, even at a time in our lives when we were dependent on that income.
When you were in the White House, how did your moral, ethical or philosophical principles factor into the sometimes difficult decisions or communications you were part of?
While working at the White House, I was fortunate to have a seat at the table with every issue. My opinion was sought after and respected. I didn’t always win when opinions differed, but I was involved, consulted and listened to. As long as you have a chance to make your case and you can see that the decision-making process has been conducted with integrity, then even if you disagree with the outcome you can still follow through on the decision – and in my case communicate about the decision – with confidence.
President Bush exemplified principled leadership. I knew his principles, and he never wavered from them. So, if I needed to represent his position or point of view I was well prepared by knowing what he would think and what he would want to do. That made me a more effective communicator on his behalf, but it also reinforced the point that principles represent a guiding force in one’s life, which makes one’s personal and professional decisions much easier. At the same time, if your principles are subject to a poll or the political winds, you can’t be a strong leader – you will lose trust with your constituents or, if you are in business, with your customers, employees and partners.
You have stated that CEOs need to be more visible in their communications. Why do you believe that?
When I was in government, in off-the-record conversations the people who seemed to complain the most bitterly about decisions in Washington were CEOs. The problem is that criticizing something privately isn’t really going to affect any change. America is ill-served by the lack of CEO visibility or participation in the decisions that affect important aspects of the U.S. economy and society. If CEOs hold true to their core principles, they should be willing to engage in frank discussions on how decisions in Washington affect their businesses and customers. They should be willing to communicate those points of view to their stakeholders.
For example, CEOs are now dealing with the consequences of “Obamacare,” and we are hearing a number of their complaints about the legislation. I think one of the reasons CEOs were quiet during development and writing of Obamacare is that they thought its flaws could be fixed after the legislation passed. But the government is getting too big to fix anything that gathers legislative and regulatory momentum, especially to the point of becoming law. If CEOs don’t offer input about the problem then they forfeit their right to complain.
You have entered a new phase in your career as cohost of The Five. How has that experience affected your views?
For a long time, if you asked me about any issue in the federal government, I could have told you exactly what I felt and why. Then I joined The Five, and while I articulate my own views on the set, I also have a job to listen to the others. That has taught me to keep my mind open, but that doesn’t require forgoing my principles.
One example I can point to relates to the legalization of marijuana. I grew up thinking that only bad people did drugs. As I’ve gotten older and read more libertarian literature, such as Reason magazine, and listened to my cohost’s views, I realize that I don’t have as firm a point of view as I once did on this issue. The types of things that happen due to drugs are heartbreaking, but the same things can happen as a result of alcohol addiction. I don’t believe I have compromised my principles – I still believe drugs are bad – but I have opened my mind to the possibility that there may be a better way for the country to deal with this issue without having it be a “war on drugs” and putting thousands of people in jail for things that many states are legalizing, such as Colorado and Washington.
Communications is at the core of your career experiences. How do communications and ethics intersect?
Good communicators usually possess important attributes that are crucial in deliberations about ethical issues, including openness to other points of view. That said, critical thinking skills and being able to reason and argue persuasively are among the best ways to be effective behind the scenes or to gain a seat at the table with the organization’s leadership. Communicators need to be more well-read than anyone else in the room. A communications degree is important, but it helps to supplement that with experience on the debate team – for those still pursuing their degree – or Toaststmasters or Rotary organizations where you have the chance to hear other perspectives, think through your arguments and, hopefully, articulate your position persuasively.
Dana Perino is cohost of Fox News Channel’s “The Five.” Her career has encompassed politics, media and strategic communications and included serving as White House Press Secretary and Assistant to President George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009.