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Analyzing the benefit of a doubt

I am awed by the power inherent in the benefit of the doubt. We use the phrase broadly, but we rarely recognize its vast powers. The benefit of the doubt affects every aspect of our lives.

When others give us the benefit of the doubt, we can do little wrong. When we are denied the benefit of the doubt, we can do little right. If we are given the benefit of the doubt, we can do a lot with a little. If we are denied the benefit of the doubt, it takes a lot to do a little. The benefit of the doubt is just that powerful.

While the benefit of the doubt affects every aspect of our lives, I want to discuss its application in just three areas: (1) leadership; (2) friendship; and (3) relationship. There are many other areas it impacts but these may be the most critical.

Leadership cannot succeed without the benefit of the doubt. There is simply no way for the masses to know all the facts informing the decisions leaders make. Therefore, we as leaders move by virtue of the benefit of the doubt. With the benefit of the doubt, we can get things done. Without it, we just keep running into the proverbial brick wall. Try as we might, we cannot get through. I have had the benefit of the doubt with me and against me. Believe me, I would rather have it with me any day.

People in the legislative process often say this about me: “When Hank gives his word, you can depend on it.” This may or not be true, but it provides the benefit of the doubt. People don’t know how situations or circumstances might change, but they don’t worry because they believe I will do what I say regardless. That helps me to lead.

When we were organizing the Senate the last three times, (1999, 2003, and 2007), the benefit of the doubt made a decisive difference each time. Allow me to briefly explore just one instance. In January 2007, those on the opposing side had 19 commitments to organize the Alabama Senate while we had just 16. Eighteen votes were needed to organize. Therefore we had to pry two Senate votes away from the other side while keeping the 16 we had. Several senators were considering jumping from our side to the other side because they just could not see how we could get from 16 to 18. We knew that if just one more senator jumped from our side to the other side, it would have unleashed a wave of defections, ending all hope of our organizing the Senate. Therefore it was absolutely critical that we keep every one of our16 senators as we worked to secure two additional ones.

One senator, who shall remain nameless, told me about repeated conversations about our not being able to get the two additional votes we needed. Therefore, it made sense for him to jump to the other side and get what he could by way of positions. He said that each time the conversation came up, he would simply say, “Senator Sanders said that when the time comes to vote, we will have 18 votes.” According to The Nameless Senator, that statement ended the conversation each time. Our 16 held firm, and when the time came, we had 18 Senate votes to organize. With the benefit of the doubt, everything becomes possible.

In leadership, as in other arenas of life, none of us know all the current factors impacting a decision. Moreover, we don’t know what factors will change in the future. If we are to lead, the benefit of the doubt is critical. If we receive it, we can stand strong. If not, we are strongly stuck.

Allow me to briefly address the other two areas: friendship and relationship. In friendship, we assume that our friends will protect our interests, our confidences, our relationship. That assumption provides the benefit of the doubt. That benefit of the doubt provides security for the relationship to grow. However, if we hear from a third party something important we shared in confidence with one of our friends, we are terribly hurt. If we discover that our interests have not been protected or our relationship valued, we cease to give the benefit of the doubt. As a result, the friendship suffers and is diminished. With the benefit of the doubt, friendship grows. Without the benefit of the doubt, friendship withers and dies. That’s the power of the benefit of the doubt.

There are all kinds of relationships that operate by virtue of the benefit of the doubt: family; marriages; teams; organizations; businesses; etc. All can exist without the benefit of the doubt, but few can prosper. The less the benefit of the doubt is given, the more security is required such as written documents.

It is important to understand that we rarely give the benefit of the doubt on everything to one person. A friend of mine asked me whether I trusted a close friend whom I knew she did not trust. I told her that I did not trust anyone in everything. I gave the following example: I have male friends who I cannot not trust with the females in my life but I can trust absolutely with money. I have other friends who I cannot trust with money but I strongly trust with the females in my life. I have some friends who I do not trust with confidences but trust completely to protect my back. I said that I knew the areas in which I could trust the particular friend. The benefit of the doubt is so powerful if we know when to give it and how to get it.

EPILOGUE – Some things are so much a part of our everyday existence that we don’t perceive their power. Therefore, we take them for granted. The benefit of the doubt is such a thing. It’s just too powerful to take for granted and be effective.

Sen. Hank Sanders represents Dallas County in the Alabama Legislature.