What Elections Tell Us About Our Leadership (A Commentary)
And, just so you know, I expect to exceed my usual 400-word limit.
Personally, I have viewed this election cycle with a mix of amazement, trepidation and disappointment. A colleague of mine summed it up well when he said he felt like apologizing to his young adult children who were engaging in presidential politics for the first time: “This is not normal. Please don’t be discouraged or disillusioned!” From FBI probes to self-incriminating videos, most realize we’ve sunk to new lows for both political parties. You know you’ve got a problem when the primary motivation for completing a ballot is to vote against a candidate, rather than voting for one.
It’s easy to be underwhelmed by the current slate of candidates—widely acknowledged to be the weakest choices in recent memory—and lament for better options. However, in my opinion, that’s missing the real point. These are the candidates that the respective parties and the voting public chose. The reality we must consider is that these two candidacies are not the problem, they are the result of a problem (actually, several problems).
You know you’ve got a problem when the primary motivation for completing a ballot is to vote against a candidate, rather than voting for one.
“And Your Point Is…?”
There’s an old leadership maxim that goes something like this: “Your organization is perfectly positioned to produce the outcomes you’re currently getting.” Translation: We are getting the results our current social and political processes would naturally provide.
There are many dynamics in play, and so there must be many solutions brought to bear on many levels to fix it. One level I’d like to explore is the perspective of leadership. With that in mind, here are some observations and a few takeaways.
1. We’ve allowed a political process to become so exclusive and disconnected from our everyday reality that qualified leaders can’t—or won’t—participate.
The ante to play in the high-stakes game of politics is beyond the average person’s accessibility. And even if they are somehow able to raise and risk the funds, they must submit to a surreal level of scrutiny, exposure and character assassination. We’ve allowed politics to become a celebrity process, which leads to campaigns looking more like a reality show than a process for discussing policy, vision or strategy. The media feeds a public appetite for controversy. Debates turn into adolescent arguments over what each candidate said about each other. Social media has become the gas thrown on the fire.
I’m convinced there are many qualified leaders in our country who would be quality candidates and could be excellent presidents. We don’t have many qualified leaders, however, who would sign up to put themselves and their families through that process, no matter how noble the calling.
2. We’ve detached from personal and professional character as a political value.
Somewhere along the way, our expectations of character on the part of politicians have eroded. No one is perfect, but where did our leadership value of being above reproach go? Why is it that a series like House of Cards is so … conceivable? We’ve somehow accepted as normal some level of cutting corners on doing things right and doing the right things. Once you accept some corner-cutting for the sake of results, where do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable corner-cutting? How many of us truly trust politics anymore, or believe that campaign promises are anything more than conveniently-timed rhetoric?
Thomas Jefferson once highlighted the primacy of character in political leadership: “God grant that men of principle shall be our principal men.” We have to ask ourselves as a society whether or not we want this to be our standard, and if not, are we willing to live with the outcomes.
3. We, as a society, seem to be drifting into leadership agnosticism.
Frankly, this is more of a question than an observation—I could have easily included “Do…” in front of “We”. Aside from the character point stated above, I see patterns of ineffective leadership behaviors exhibited by both candidates. Some are unique to each candidate (e.g. Trump’s tendency to focus on and promote himself, Clinton’s evasiveness in answering direct questions), and some are common to both (e.g. a tendency to elevate self by denigrating the opponent). I know some of this is par for the course in politics, but we seem to have taken it to the next level in this cycle.
I fear we have grown tolerant of it—or perhaps unaware of it; I’m not sure where the line is that separates the two. Either way, the outcome is largely the same. If we were more aware and less tolerant of poor leadership traits, would we not recognize them sooner and demand different? We have market dynamics that demand more from the products and services we consume. Why don’t we likewise demand more from our leadership? We can. We could; if we were tuned into it enough. Perhaps we’re more tuned into other things, but that just makes my point.
The Big Picture
I fear that no matter who wins Tuesday, we all (to a certain extent) will experience a loss.
Yet not all is lost. Note that all of the observations begin with “we.” That’s actually a clue toward a solution. They are within our power; fixing them is up to us.
Like most challenges in life, the only way these issues change is for leaders to step up to the plate. These leaders must do more than throw accusations at the other side. They must effectively (no political shots intended here) call out the elephant in the room, tell the jackasses to quit complaining, cast a compelling vision and build consensus and unity toward fixing the problems. They must have high standards; they must be brave enough to stand up and say, “follow me!” in such a way that people actually will.
It also takes willing and qualified followers—which doesn’t mean blind followers. Being a quality follower is actually a powerful role. Followers can demand that their leaders do and be more. They must be capable, responsible and engaged. And they must themselves take up the responsibility for leading in their own roles (families, businesses, communities, etc.).
It’s not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing. It’s an US thing.
All this sounds so basic, and I realize it seems insufficient to solve the immediate problem. But as I said earlier, the current slate of candidates is only the symptom; the real disease process is much more fundamental. What I’ve suggested won’t happen overnight. In fact, it probably won’t happen in a generation. We didn’t get here quickly, so we can’t fix it quickly. But we can make significant progress if we begin. We must begin now.
What’s at stake? What happens if we don’t act? I know this sounds Chicken Little, but very likely the way of life most of us grew up with and everything we stand for as a society will fade into mediocrity.
It can be done. It must be done, and we must do it—together. It’s not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing. It’s an US thing.