#7 Understanding: Counting Down the Top 7 Principles for Federal Leadership

#7 Understanding: Counting Down the Top 7 Principles for Federal Leadership

Principle # 7: Understanding

When your humble blogger was growing up, he often heard his mother poke fun at the unduly self-assured—those who always thought they were “the smartest man in the room”—although that phrase was not invented yet then. She did this kindly and subtly, as only Mom could, by putting these words in the all-knowing one’s mouth: “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Then she would get that twinkle in her eye.

This saying, which apparently dates back to the 1945 article “Don’t Confuse Me With Facts!” by one Roy S. Durstine, caught on in the 1950s, and you probably have heard it. It is a close cousin to the snide “Ready! Fire! Aim!” quip, which, like “My mind is made up…”, also can be self-deprecating. The point not-so-subtly obscured by the sarcasm, is to chide someone who reaches a conclusion before assimilating the pertinent facts. At Principle Based Politics, we call this concept “deciding before learning,” and we disapprove.

Understanding is a fundamental principle.

We believe that our federal leaders should have open minds and listen, read, and learn before making policy decisions. Understanding must precede “knowing” is another way to put it. Certainly, “understand before saying” is a related rule by which to lead.

Stephen Covey lists one of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as this: “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” That phrase, in turn, goes back to the Prayer of Saint Francis request that God “Grant that I may not so much seek…To be understood as to understand.” Even before that, Proverbs 4:7, found in the Old Testament, taught that “The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; And with all your acquiring, get understanding.” Obviously, we did not invent the idea that understanding is important.

Practical Application of the Principle of Understanding

Understanding in politics, however, can be challenging to display in practice. When the candidate is giving a media interview or is in a debate and is asked to opine on a foreign policy issue or a proposed law, it must be particularly tough to admit even partial ignorance and reply, “I’ll need to learn about that issue before I can give you an answer.” When a president is giving a White House press conference, it must be awkward to say, “I really don’t know about that. I will check into it.” When a senator or representative is asked by a constituent “Do you support the President on __ issue?,” it must be hard to evade with “Let me read up on that.” We all can envision the headlines that would ensue about these answers, which would be billed as gaffes or taken as proof of membership in the old Know Nothing Party.

Nevertheless, we must look for candidates, presidents, senators, and representatives with the
humility and patience to wait until they know what they are talking about before talking. (For their own sake, they should remember the adage that it is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt. We will spare you the long analysis of the origin of that one.) As voters, we must do our own fact checking before deciding on a position related to an issue being taken by a politician.

Even more importantly, we should insist on political leaders who will educate themselves on the issues so they actually can understand. They must build strong teams that will help them learn. Briefing papers, advisors, and research are not in short supply in our federal government. Before decisions are made, leaders should do everything within their power to understand the salient facts, think about their options, and then—and only then—decide what to do, and do it.

You will see in later posts how Principle Based Politics particularly emphasizes understanding as to complex topics like climate change and foreign relations. On those issues, which by nature present conundrums, our leaders must gather information from many sources, including contrary evidence that may be in opposition to their initial stance. Objective scientific research and analysis is necessary to understand climate change and then formulate policy. It is essential to understand and vet that data before determining what to do. Intelligence from ambassadors and others around the world is necessary to understand hot spots and then formulate foreign policy. It is crucial to assimilate and probe all of that intelligence before speaking and acting on international matters. These are just two examples.

Therefore, the message to leaders who are basing their politics on principles is that they should consider whether the principle of understanding is particularly weighty on the issue they face and, if so, they should make sure they have listened, read, and learned all they can on that topic. It is better to have an educated and reasoned policy than one that can be tweeted immediately.


Understanding also incorporates the principle of empathy. We should seek out politicians who can understand situations from perspectives other than their own. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Certainly, voters can recognize and criticize when an elected leader lacks empathy, and we should try just as hard to determine in advance whether putative leaders have it.

A Lesson from Our Judicial Branch

Our federal judiciary provides a helpful model for the other branches of the government on the foundational need for understanding. The best example is how a decision is made in a civil lawsuit, which proceeds like this: Legal allegations are filed, the parties through “discovery” gather all potentially relevant evidence (i.e., documents and deposition testimony), that evidence is tested through pretrial motions filed with the judge, and then, if the judge deems there to be sufficient evidence to proceed, a trial is held in a courtroom. In that courtroom, unbiased jurors are selected to listen to and read all of the evidence presented. The jurors then decide the case at the end of the trial. Importantly, throughout the process, the judge instructs and reminds the jury to wait until they have heard “all” of the evidence before even beginning to consider which party should win. The final step is for all of the jurors to “deliberate” together—which means to hash over the evidence, sometimes for days—and then render the verdict.

The leaders of our executive and legislative branches, as individuals, could employ a similar process of gathering all potentially relevant facts, reading documents, listening (rather than making speeches) in legislative hearings, debating the importance of the various facts to test them, and then voting.

Top 7 Principles for Federal Leadership (counting down over seven posts)

  1. Understanding

Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics.

Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.

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