We teach our children to be honest, to say what you mean, and to mean what you say. We tell ourselves that we are truthful and that our word is our bond. We say that a person’s handshake is more powerful than any words written on a piece of paper. Furthermore, that the commitments we share between one another should bear the strength of steel and shall not bend or break. So why do we accept our politicians’ untruthful behavior, yet we punish our children for far less? Why is that behavior rewarded and even defended in a way that normalizes it? When did our wrongs become right and this overwhelming urge to kneel to deception be deemed acceptable? I remember my father mentioning to me as a child “fear causes people to lie because they are afraid of an unfavorable outcome, so they create a false perception to avoid true reality.” It’s been over 40 years since we had that conversation. It was the first time I was taught about the importance of integrity and keeping my word. So why are so many elected official granted a free pass on integrity or keeping their word? The question is simple. When we remain silent or turn a blind eye to untruthful or lawless behavior, we actually grant our politicians permission to continue with business as usual. We accept their excuses so why should they keep their word.

To avoid keeping their word, politicians are allowed to blame it on politics as an excuse to disregard every one of those concepts mentioned. If that doesn’t work, they blame the voters, saying they should just vote the politicians who fail them out of office. However, that task is never that simple. Voters are busy living their lives and providing for their families. Many of them have larger problems to deal with, and they don’t have time to take on a second (or third) job of baby-sitting their political officials at every turn. Nonetheless, residents still have every right to expect the service of an elected official that values integrity and honesty.

This is why the blame should fall on the politicians who all ran for office with a promise to do the people’s business. If they betray that promise and pursue their own self-interest at the expense of the citizens, those politicians should be held accountable. So, it’s important to distinguish between a politician and an elected leader.

Politicians exist to feed off the system only by taking what they can from the public, while telling them what they think they want to hear. A politician’s moral compass always faces toward his or her own self-interest; to be blunt, a politician is a lot like a shark – always moving, never retreating, and constantly looking for its next opportunity. You can always spot a politician by his or her inability to say one simple word: “no!” No polished politician would ever be caught dead telling a would-be voter no. They will dodge, dip, duck, and deflect, but they’ll never deny a voter anything to his face, even when the answer should be “no.”

Elected leaders come to office to be in service to the public. Their mission is far more meaningful because they are engaged in a larger purpose. They strive to create a system(s) that will change people’s lives. The best-elected leaders have thought hard about their positions on issues, have an abiding sense of right and wrong, and do not need to resort to cheap theatrics to look relevant. They read the legislation they are expected to vote on and focus on the details. A leader will tell you what they think, how they’re going to vote, and then follow through on that vote. That’s what having integrity means. Unlike politicians, the office inhabited does not define who they are because their credibility and integrity means more than the office they hold.

So, why do we find ourselves up to our elbows in politicians? Why are leaders so few and far between? It’s because being a leader is the harder path, and politicians just don’t want to do the work. Leadership requires effort, consistency and grit. A leader understands the enormous challenges facing them and agrees to take it head on, while a politician will only admire the challenge from afar, never really engaging the challenge. A politician will, however, tell you who’s to blame for it as long as someone is there to listen. Once the audience is gone, they retreat into irrelevance.

If you want to see if you’ve elected a politician or a leader, ask them about their record on one issue: term limits. It’s a great topic because it requires a politician to do the one thing they never want to do: give up office. A politician will usually be against it outright, although they may never come right out and admit it. Term limits mean an end to a politician’s existence. Do you really follow up on a politician after they’ve been elected to see if they are keeping their word? The more sinister brand of politician will tell you everything you want to hear while running for office, and then vote against everything they have told you once they are elected. This happens because politicians know voters will not remember their campaign position and if pressed about it later will just deflect and move on to another issue.

This is why voters must remain involved long after the election is over and hold politicians’ feet to the fire. We must let politicians know that their behavior is not acceptable by no longer accepting it. If we are going to change the culture, we must choose leaders who keep their word. We must make them know when they are not fulfilling their duties. And, most importantly, if we are going to change what we get from our elected leader then we must choose based upon the content of their character and not on image, slogans, or relationships.

We’re just a few weeks from another election; I encourage you to pay attention to those looking for your vote this November. See if they place more importance on themselves or the issues voters are facing. Above all, ask yourself if you see any leaders there. Or, just more sharks circling.

If you have any questions or comments on this topic or have other topics you’d like to see featured in a future column, e-mail me at [email protected]

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