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Being called a mugwump is not a compliment. A mugwump is an individual who appears to be considering all sides of a problem at great length but is unwilling to indicate which way he or she wants to go. A political cartoononce depicted such a person as being astride a fence with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.

It was reported a few years ago that Boris Johnson, now the U.K. Prime Minister, called one of his political opponents a mutton-headed old mugwump in his Sun newspaper column. Since mugwump was more of an American term, many baffled British readers had to look that up.

It turned out that Johnson had borrowed this expression from the 1972 book Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (the sequel to the better-known Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) by Roald Dahl. Willy Wonka, thechocolate factory owner, refers to a character there as my dear old muddle-headed mugwump.

The evolution of the English language sometimes takes strange turns. What was once complimentary may become exactly the opposite over time. For example, awful once meant wonderful, but now it means terrible.And so it goes with mugwump.To the ancient Algonquian tribe of Massachusetts, mugwump meant war leader, kingpin or important person.But by 1828 its meaning had also become a humorous term for boss, a person in authority or big cheese.

In 1884, the Mugwumps were breakaway Republicans who felt they were being noble by supporting Grover Cleveland, the Democratic presidential candidate, instead of their own.The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes the extended meaning of mugwump at that time as a person who is independent (as in politics) or who remains undecided or neutral.

But Wikipedia points out that somecontemporaries thought that the Mug­wumps were fence-sitters and sanctimonious or holier-than-thou. Todays meaning of mugwump has become even less positive than that.

We all know individuals who can speak eloquently at length but who do not say anything substantive. For some people, that may be their stock in trade. It takes a special kind of talent, I suppose, to be able to do that, but being a mugwump and not being able to commit when necessary in the business world simply does not cut it.The plain fact is that decisions-often under duress and with limited information-have to be made at some point.They may not always be perfect, but some action has to be taken at critical junctures in order to continue operating.

Straddling the fence may work temporarily with politicians and a few of your co-workers, but not with the capable management and professional people who are trying to keep your company profitable and alive for the long run.If a business stands still, it dies. It must keep moving, and mugwumps impede that.

It may sound harsh, but if there are mugwumps in decision-making positions in your company, they should be informed that they are probably better suited for some other kind of activity.

Jack Goodhue, management coach, may be contacted at

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