Failure of nerve

Posted: May 19, 2006 12:04 AM

In a classic essay on the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire, British classicist Gilbert Murray contends that Romans suffered from a "failure of nerve." With barbarian hordes amassing on their borders, Rome needed to martial their superior army to respond to imminent threats with strength and resolve. But with citizens content in their often lavish and seemingly secure lifestyles, Rome failed to muster a proper defense. The result: Romans lost both their security and their freedom.

Failure of nerve is a common ailment for leaders. Defined as choosing the status quo to avoid a decision which might produce a positive change in course, a failure of nerve is all too often the cause for failure in international affairs, domestic politics and business.

For example, last week I spoke with a CEO friend currently facing a crucial strategic decision. His company of over 10,000 employees is at a technological crossroads—and market forces are undercutting current strategy.

“Do I invest billions of dollars in a new strategy where the outcome is uncertain, or do I maintain the course, hoping things will work out, and leave the problem to the next CEO, who will be coming along anyway in about three years?” my friend asked.

In 2006, America has the same choice facing my CEO friend and that once faced Rome: take bold action in pursuit of long-term success, or simply kick the can down the road for someone else to worry about. Consider just a few of the key priorities we face in the next six months: stabilizing Iraq, confronting Iran, securing our borders, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, reforming entitlements – add ‘em up and it’s easy to see how our leaders can experience a failure of nerve. 

But now is not the time for wavering. Republican leadership cannot afford to play it safe leading up to midterm elections. Instead, the GOP must step forward with a bold and confident agenda that sparks the imagination of the American people. They must show they can govern! If they do not, they will lose both the mid-term elections and the trust of the American people.

As we creep closer to the November elections, we need leadership, specifically in four areas:

  • Iraq and Iran: Develop a comprehensive strategy that demonstrates both prudence and strength.
  • Energy: Show us you really do want to break our addiction to oil and how you plan to do it.
  • Immigration: Secure the borders, keep our economy growing, and provide a vehicle for citizenship.
  • Spending: Stop passing so many earmarks and pick one major entitlement program you want to introduce for reform. 

A bold agenda needs to be crafted as a team effort between the White House, Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, and, in the case of immigration, with key governors from the border states.

Right now there’s not much teamwork. However, it looks like the White House is getting the picture that they must reach out more to other leaders if they want to really craft solutions that will be acceptable for multiple stakeholders. Break down the barriers, work together as a team, and cast a bold vision that the majority of Americans can rally behind. 

I for one, have been critical of the president on budgetary issues in a book called Getting America Right, but the time for criticism has passed. Now is the time for the home team to rally and get behind our leaders – if they will work together to really give us something to cheer about. Again, the president laid out a challenge for Congress in his speech on Monday night. I for one don’t agree with everything, but I do think he is moving in the right direction.

So I offer my encouragement to President Bush, Bill Frist, and Denny Hastert. I urge you all to be bold, wise and courageous in the defense of our security and freedom.  Break down the barriers between the White House and the Congress. Work together.  And I remind you that history rewards courage and foresight but scorns a failure of nerve.