If the Iraqi people decided today, they love their children more than they hate their neighbors…this could come to a quick conclusion. Peter Pace, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff on sectarian violence during Iraq War.
If the possible re-election of Donald Trump or election of Bernie Sanders as President is giving you heartburn. If you believe immigration, climate change, income equality, terrorism, abortion, rampant capitalism, socialism or something else is our greatest risk. Please hear me out. I believe there is an answer, but it will require scads of us to think anew.
Our society today feels like that video of two bucks on the African plain locked in intense battle A small speck in the distance gets larger and larger until it becomes clear it is a male lion racing toward the bucks. The bucks are so distracted in their fight that the lion easily captures one of the bucks by the throat. That is how our internal fighting exposes us to grave risk.
As citizens, it would be more productive to think of ourselves and our political opponents, not as enemies but as diverse stakeholders. While we may do tribal battle with each other, we are a part of a larger team – our country. As David Brooks says, tribes are animated by who and what they hate. Teams are animated by who and what they love. Strong teams accomplish incredible things by enabling and empowering stakeholders with diverse traits, skills, points of view and passions.
Acting out in tribalistic ways, especially in a media world whose business model depends on riling people up, feeds a fractured culture already rife with drama and trauma. Gallup reports our level of stress, worry and anger are the highest on record, even higher than during the 2009 financial meltdown, even though we have 3.2 percent GDP growth, low unemployment and significant wage growth at the lower end of the wage scale. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon laments that fighting each other has crippled the country’s ability to enact basic reforms that elevate economic growth and strengthen the safety net: schools, infrastructure, regulations.
Trauma damages the ability to connect. Narrow tribes and sullen loners have left us a traumatized, disconnected culture.
Old, Narrow, Self-Centered
Like big business, politics and religion have become more narrow and self-centered. Large companies, especially public companies, too often adopted a culture, not of teams united in a common goal, but more of a ” master-slave” relationship. Shareholders and thus shareholder value was the master while other stakeholders (employees, customers, communities) became the slaves. Even former CEO Jack Welch has recanted on this model which he now calls the stupidest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result of productive relationships with competing and diverse groups and interests.
It turns out master-slave relationships, while they may produce short-term gains, are not sustainably productive. Ultimately, they feed the rise of warring tribes – #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, boycotts, unions, regulators. Just ask the former CEOs of Wells Fargo, Uber, CBS, or Papa Johns. Unbalanced power and toxic culture destroys relationships with key stakeholder groups, the source of innovation, productivity and strong customer relationships – and gets leaders fired!
Now we see a similar toxicity occurring in politics and faith – narrow interests and self-centered views steeped in winning for the home team and efforts to silence and defeat stakeholders who see it differently or have a different experience. If only we could defeat and destroy the other side things would be great! (I’m looking at you, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Franklin Graham, AOC.) When we fail to see others as stakeholders, we risk assuming the self-righteous position of master/owner and the source of truth while attempting to punish anyone who doesn’t fit our mold.
By contrast, strong teams build on strengths and differences that make the team successful and resilient. They do not condemn the pitcher who cannot hit, the catcher who is slow and the pinch runner who hits poorly. That was not the job they were hired to do. They bring essential skills that make a team succeed. We each bring different experiences (and baggage) that makes the team unique and valuable. My friend Tom answers his own riddle: “How then shall we treat others? There are no others.” So true, there is only us.
Looking for a Team, Not a King
Like in old testament time, we pray for a strong king to kick butt and take names on behalf of our political or religious belief. And, too often that king leads to a common outcome: power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Executive presidential orders “necessitated” by government gridlock, do not build coalitions. They divide.
The wisdom of our founders was powerful and very specific. They were not looking for a king, they were looking for a team with shared, distributed, even competing power. They defined three co-equal branches of government – legislative, judicial, executive. They drew up a constitution and bill of rights that provided protections against oppressive power. They debated about how to share power with the state and local governments. Eventually all citizens got the vote.
Democracy is designed to govern differences and disagreement in a way that fosters participation, innovation and advancement. Yet as powerful as all of these mechanisms are, as we have seen repeatedly around the world, they fail if they are not supported by a culture that embraces them. Peter Drucker famously stated: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture also eats laws, policies, and rules.
There is not a culture issue more important today than how to proceed in the midst of disagreement and even contempt for “other.” Disagreement is the mother’s milk of innovation, but it presents a real challenge for all but the most mature of cultures. CEO Jeff Bezos at Amazon describes a phrase that is a part of their culture, “I disagree and I commit.” He explains that often he and his team disagree on issues, and after they thrash it out in lively debate, they come to a decision and all commit to move forward. Why? Because, the united sum can be so much more productive than the divided parts.
This points to something larger than any single decision – the power of a team whose purpose is higher than individual preferences. It won’t yield perfect answers, but as we used to say in my company, “When it works, we call it success; when it doesn’t, we call it learning.” That spirit of the team is in danger in our country’s culture today.
As politics has become the new religion, we find ourselves engaged in a holy war that feeds a culture of contempt. In the 2016 presidential election about half of voters voted “against” vs. “for” a candidate – voting against Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – up significantly from 2008. We have become more “authoritarian” rather than collegial – voting emotionally “against” someone or trying to silence others on a narrow issue like immigration or abortion. Too often we sound like the sole proprietor or owner of this country getting to dictate “my way or the highway.” Rather, we are stakeholders and so is our opposition.
It is really tempting to vote for a leader who will grab power for our side or attack the other side, rather than build support for a team that will effectively govern for all stakeholders. This we must resist.
Succession: What Does Success Look Like?
In 2020 we face what every organization faces, from the time of Moses to Donald Trump, leader succession. Notice the root of “succession” is success. How do we plan to succeed – forward? Do we re-up our current leader or do we choose a new one? Which leads to a very important question: Given our divisive dysfunction, what does success look like for this country over the next four years and how does our next Presidential election influence it?
Let me suggest a perspective. Imagine you are board chair of a group that is to set the strategic direction of the country – much like a corporate board, local school board or a small non-profit does. Your highest priority is to hire a leader charged with leading that general direction for the next four years.
You have some very strong opinions about what should be priorities. But, consider that you also have some stakeholders – board members, those you serve, employees – who strongly disagree with you. Just like with your spouse, the long-term will not be best served by trying to win every argument without giving an inch. Success will require collaboration and compromise among the stakeholders to build a coalition that that can function going forward – “we” over “me.” If the new leader lurches far left or right, she will be undermined, bouncing the organization from one extreme to the other, preventing any real progress in addressing pressing issues.
Relational Leadership—Make Us a Team
Now apply that “success” mindset to 2020. I believe job one for our next President will be shifting our nation’s strategic trajectory out of this downward, divisive spiral. It will require someone who has a vision for what I call Relational Leadership: strategic, intentional, “by-design” leadership that puts building strong, productive stakeholder relationships over ideology, partisan politics, attacking oppositional media or even getting re-elected. To take liberties with Jim Collins of Good to Great fame: Relational Leadership is more than Get the Right People on the Bus, it is Get/Keep the Right Stakeholder Relationships on the Bus.
Relational leadership does not mean we put aside our opinions or strong views: we argue not less, but better. It is more than just being nice. It is being strong enough to seek “constructive dissatisfaction” – finding the optimal dissatisfaction of the key stakeholders that move the country forward. Playing for what works over playing to the extremes of the base.
Research finds that employees who feel respected are 54% more engaged, yet 50% of employees do not feel respected by their leaders. Re-spect literally means to look again. What would it be like to have a leader where most groups in this country – urban/rural, conservative/progressive, black/white, citizen/non-citizen – felt respected? President Clinton, who bridged Ivy-league, Rhode scholar with Bubba-from-Arkansas, or Reagan whose geniality and sunniness softened opposition, come to mind.
Job one for us citizens is to find, elect and support the best Relational Leader. It is not to find the leader who will fight for our narrow interests or vilify our enemies. If you find President Trump’s combative, bullying style offensive, then don’t elect someone who is attempting the same style – just carrying a different flag. If Bernie scares you because he is extreme, don’t support an extreme candidate – for your tribe – who will simply traumatize a different tribe. If you find business CEOs too focused on a privileged group called shareholders, don’t hire a political leader who narrowly favors one group without seeking to bring along the whole team.
When we walk into the voting booth, we must decide to love what unites us more than we hate what divides us – team over tribe.
Robert’s latest book, “This Land of Strangers” is now in paperback. A “recovering CEO,” he has authored 150 published articles and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post, The CEO Magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org