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Bob & Elizabeth Dole: 7 Ways to Practice Good Leadership and Preserve Democracy

Those who say compromise is a sign of weakness misunderstand the fundamental strength of our democracy

President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill shake hands in the Oval Office in 1985. (Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration)
President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill shake hands in the Oval Office in 1985. (Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration)

During more than 50 years of public service in the House, Senate, five presidential administrations and the nonprofit sector, it has been our privilege to witness the essential role good leadership and bipartisanship play in preserving our democracy.

America’s standing as the world’s only superpower and the preeminent model of a free society has always relied on our policymakers to act as servants of the public, true leaders who stand ready to make the hard decisions and live with the consequences.

They do what has to be done to achieve results. And at their best, they accept change, even while adhering to the values that are timeless: duty and integrity, moral courage and sacrifice, honesty and personal responsibility — senatorial values, democratic values, American values.

Here are seven characteristics, traits and virtues we have found to be present in those practicing good leadership.

Give and take

In governing well, we were able to reach an agreement only because no one got everything and everyone gave something. As Everett Dirksen said, “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”

Politics is the art of compromise. We’ve learned from many years in Congress and in the executive branch that it’s difficult to get anything done unless you’re able to find common ground, to compromise — not your principles but your willingness to see the other side. Those who suggest that compromise is a sign of weakness misunderstand the fundamental strength of our democracy.


From President Ronald Reagan, we learned that one of the most important qualities a leader can possess is patience. He never confused civility with weakness, nor generosity of spirit with surrender of principle.

Do what is best for America

The objective of all our actions in politics and governance must be to arrive at what is best for America. This ruling mantra is bigger than oneself, bigger than any election, bigger than any political party allegiance.

The long view

Leadership begins with the long view — getting along with others, even those who oppose your views, and maintaining respectful relationships. Today’s opponents might, on another issue another day, be allies.

Bipartisan relationships

Listen to views that are not your own. In Congress, and at the Cabinet table, we argued a lot. But we all shared a fundamental commitment to the institutions and a basic respect for our colleagues, regardless of affiliation.

The bottom line is that while we were often adversaries, we were close friends too. Over five decades, we sought to epitomize bipartisanship. It was — and is — essential to good government and getting things done. It allowed us to have a hand in nearly every major legislative act during the administrations of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush.

Our willingness to work across the aisle continues to open doors for the causes we lead today. Some of our proudest and most lasting accomplishments came when we forged bipartisan deals: Social Security reform, preserving agricultural subsidies, life-saving safety initiatives, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Reagan tax compromise and the recent expansion of stipends to military caregivers of every war era, to name a few.

Causes bigger than oneself

It is good to have personal and professional ambitions, but we have found that life is most fulfilling, and our nation is best served, when our actions are allied to a cause greater than ourselves, to a higher ideal.

Keep your word

Over the years, we learned that nothing much matters if you forfeit the trust of your colleagues in government. If you don’t keep your word, it doesn’t matter much what agenda you try to advance. You have lost.
These characteristics, traits and virtues collectively represent the timeless core of good leadership. In any era or time of challenge, they are indispensable to properly guiding our own actions and our nation.

More than a decade ago, we joined with Sens. George Mitchell, Tom Daschle and Howard Baker to support the founding of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The BPC seeks to combine the best ideas from both political parties with the aim of improving health, security and opportunity for all Americans.
Today, we are proud to lend our names to a new BPC initiative devoted to providing real examples, from across public and private sectors, as models of inspirational and effective leadership to address America’s most pressing issues.

The Bob and Elizabeth Dole Series on Leadership will highlight speakers, authors and films, featuring the work and ideas of prominent influencers with diverse viewpoints from across government, business, science and other disciplines.

Every generation, every age brings with it new challenges — but with good leadership and a bipartisan approach, America’s leaders can solve problems, get things done, improve the lives of our citizenry and lay a foundation for our children’s futures.

Bob Dole, a former Senate majority leader and co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996.

Elizabeth Dole, a former cabinet secretary, senator and president of the American Red Cross, is the president and founder of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, raising awareness and support for our nation’s 5.5 million military caregivers.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.


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