Good leaders evolve

This has been a deadly week of violence in the city of Chicago.  As I watched the political conversation about gun violence and the need for reform of our gun laws, I thought of how this same issue played out in Vermont.  It is unusual for elected leaders to change their minds on important issues – but it can be a sign of good leadership.  Below is a public radio commentary I provided after Vermont’s governor changed his position on gun control.

Scott’s Evolution

One of the best parts of serving in public office is getting to hear from Vermonters from every part of the state, and all walks of life.  Not only was it interesting to hear about their aspirations and struggles, but it was important for me, as a leader, to see how their lives could be impacted by decisions we were making in Montpelier.   Sometimes, after one of these conversations, I would see an issue in an entirely new way, and it would lead me to change my mind about a policy I was considering.

I still remember, when I first ran for Secretary of State, being told by an old-timer, to be careful of the stands I took during the campaign. He warned that politicians take great risks when they change their mind about important issues, and that no one respects a leader whose positions blow with the wind of public opinion.

Whether the issue is gun control, as we’re seeing today, or in my case, same day voter registration, when a political leader changes their position, it’ll leave some voters disappointed and angry.

So, it should come as no surprise that some of Governor Scott’s supporters are expressing dismay that his position on gun control “evolved” since he took office last year. They’re calling him a traitor – a flip-flopper – and worse. But, for the governor, the issue of gun control is no longer just about an individual’s right to bear arms; he must also think about keeping children safe in school, protecting victims of domestic assault and reducing the risk to Vermonters from gun violence.

Nelson Mandela famously said, “where you stand depends upon where you sit.” By this, he meant that our views on the world are greatly determined by our experiences. Our experiences, in turn, are largely influenced by our upbringing, our economic status, and the people who surround us.  For that reason, it’s important for political leaders to hear from a broad cross-section of the state, to expose themselves to a variety of viewpoints, and to keep an open mind.

It’s much easier to be for something – or against it – when you’ve the luxury of looking at the issue only from your own limited set of experiences. Our democracy is stronger – and more representative – when the opinions of political leaders evolve as they learn more about the issue, and about the people they represent.