It’s time to admit we don’t know. The way to know isn’t ideology. It’s relationships.
- Trevor Ruddock Black
Fight hard, win the election, overstate your mandate, overreach – rinse and repeat. It happened with President Bush after his 3.5 million-vote second-term victory, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Similarly, with President Obama after winning a second term, his comments were summarized by the Washington Post: “I won. Deal with it.” Invasion of Iraq, ramming through ObamaCare absent bi-partisan support, numerous executive orders – too often our leaders have translated election wins into ideological agendas that exceed their mandate. The result: pushback by the electorate, transactional change that does not stick and more partisan divide.
Overreach is a real risk for President-elect Trump. In 2016 Hillary won the popular vote by an estimated one million votes. Trump won the electoral college vote by an estimated 74 votes. We continue to be an evenly divided nation.
Overreach is the living, breathing political product of confirmation bias – conforming and even distorting the data to confirm our opinions. What our leaders call a “movement” is usually a correction and even a repudiation of the previous leader’s overreach. It is what happens when ideology and ego trump serving – not just our tribe – but all the people. It is time for President Outreach not President Overreach.
The Old ‘War-based’ Model Just Keeps Driving Us Apart
Elections are about winning the war by defeating the enemy. Governing is about winning the peace by transforming enemies into productive co-creators – it does not eliminate conflict and partisanship, but rather seeks to re-cast them in more constructive and sustainable ways. Unfortunately, we are a culture more skilled and entertained in political warfare and increasingly inept at, and bored in, peace-making and relationship rebuilding. Over-investing in political warfare empties us of financial and relational resources needed for constructive endeavors; and, like all wars, is eventually unaffordable and unsustainable.
History predicts what happens next. The winners attempt to assert their will on everyone because, after all, they won and elections matter. Today’s social media – a new weapon of mass relational destruction – combined with our old adversarial model of leadership, leaves us not just divided but hostile to our fellow citizens, unwilling to compromise and unable to enlist the best of both sides.
ObamaCare provides an example. Obama attempted to extend medical coverage for millions of people. But between his leadership approach and Republican resistance, it was passed by one vote, along party lines. There was no consensus, collaboration, co-creation and thus no trust or buy-in. Now President-elect Trump who promised “repeal and replace” signals hesitation for an all-out repeal. Perhaps the “art-of-the-deal” guy sees the body-rejects-the-organ risk in the old-style cram-down leadership model. It produces too many oppositional groups invested in making “change” fail. Overreach puts the change partisans seek more at-risk. To quote marketing guru Ted Rubin: “Indifference is expensive, hostility unaffordable, and trust is priceless.”
This was an election less about Democrat vs. Republican. It was more personal than that – more about the ruling class vs. the ruining class. The former are elites who “know best;” the latter those who feel ruined by those who know best. Each election cycle seems to present a temporary new group of entitled persecutors and a different group of entitled victims – each unaccountable for the carnage they cause.
A New Relational Leadership Model for Merging Us
So where is a more productive model for moving forward? First I think we look at the changing demands of leadership in other sectors – business, non-profits, churches – especially in response to generational change. Millennials are now our largest workforce segment. They are asking and sometimes demanding more purposeful, team-oriented, participative, collaborative, co-creation leadership models – where diverse input translates into more effective, innovative and sustainable solutions. Strong leadership is getting a make-over: from a focus on the “strength” of the leader, to the strength the leader imparts into those led. Sixty-four percent of employers report adjusting their management style in the past five years to adapt to a younger workforce.
This new model is actually very old. Our democracy was founded on the relational balance of majority rule and minority protection. Time to extend that model.
Relational Leadership – my name for this new “old” model – puts building productive, engaged, sustainable relationships above everything else – including ideology and policy. Better, more sustainable ideology and policy will come from better, stronger, sustainable relationships. Conversely, ideology and policies that come from broken and dysfunctional relationships creates persecutors, victims and unsustainable transactional change. President Lincoln described democracy as “of the people, by the people, for the people” – Relational Leadership focuses on engaging those relationships – including those tempted to drop out. In this last election, an estimated 57 percent of those eligible voted, down from 58.6 in 2012 and 61.6 in 2008, leaving a smaller, more polarized group making a very large decision for all. Disengagement is the enemy of sustainable democracy; engagement is its best friend.
We don’t need to ditch our ideology; we need to infuse it with a more relational ideology as a means toward our highest aim – strong, productive relationships. We need leadership that connects conservative-and-progressive, intellectual-and-worker, black-brown-white-yellow, young-and-old, urban-suburban-rural and all-genders. Our differences are inevitable and healthy, one of our greatest sources of innovation and variety. What a waste: leadership that squelches differences rather than levering, navigating and inviting them to yield the wonderful bounty they possess. Our big question is not: What legislative changes can we pass. Rather: What change can we sustain?
So, what is the first mission of Relational Leadership in facing this 50-50 divided nation? It is to affect a merger – to integrate the disintegrated. It is what President Lincoln did with his Team of Rivals – recruiting four rivals who ran against him for President to his cabinet as they faced the Civil War. It is what President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill did in merging our Allied Forces to combat Hitler and the Nazis. It is what Nelson Mandela did in the great reconciliation after apartheid in South Africa. They did what great leaders do; they bind us together.
The movement we most need today begins with Relational Leadership that merges us together into productive relationship. Relationship IS our highest ideal – it is the sustainable way to know.