Leadership Strategy

Our President-Elect’s First Job

Coronavirus. Climate. Social justice. Jobs. Economy. Global alliances. Healthcare. Infrastructure. Trade. Education. Energy. Innovation.

           Take your pick: if you were President-elect Biden, which would be your number one leadership priority? Or is there another answer? With apologies, this is a trick question; the right answer, in this analyst’s opinion, is unification.

           Teaching two graduate leadership courses for 15 years and advising corporate leadership for 23, it was first imperative to have a good working definition of a leader, not to mention leadership. What a shock to discover early on that, amidst the millions of pages written on the subject, there wasn’t a good, concise one to be found that: (a) satisfactorily incorporated all the key elements, (b) presented a starting point for the work ahead of developing leaders, and (c) led to an idealized model toward which to work.

OK, so what is a leader?

Here’s the result of the ensuing – and ongoing – thought exercise: A leader is a person who has and articulates a vision, creates change, inspires others to achieve mutual goals, builds and maintains effective working relationships – all while setting the highest standards of ethical thought and behavior.

Vision. Communication. Change. Mutual goals. Team. Ethics.

Six components. Six pillars of leadership. Or, more reflectively, five pillars on a foundation of ethics.

           These are not only critical; try building your leadership with any one of them missing. Remove any one of them, and the whole thing falls apart as quickly as a house of cards in a breeze. They’re not only indispensable, they’re interdependent.

           Back to the President-elect. Of the six, Mr. Biden seems to have five pretty much in his back pocket. He’s got the vision (The Soul of America), has been articulating it simply and clearly all along (Build Back Better), has his blueprint for change (most formidably his pick for VP), has and will build what everyone expects to be a team of extraordinary experts, and earns high marks in ethics.

So what’s missing? Beneath the surface of our divisiveness

           One of the few things upon which everyone in this country agrees is how divided we are. Then how is our leader supposed to inspire us to achieve mutual goals if there are none? Goals? Yes. Mutual? That’s another story.

We are, by now, all too familiar with the red and blue electoral map. A 1976 creation by NBC at the urging of John Chancellor, it was a seemingly innocent attempt at understanding election returns as they happened. Now we’re stuck with it: a bold, belligerent illustration of division and a stubborn, persistent reminder of our differences.

           And it deepens when you measure what has been colored. In the 2020 election, the last few shards of which are still being swept up, the numbers beneath the colors have a more ominous tale to tell.

The devil is in the … data

           As of nine days past the election, with approximately 96 percent of all votes counted nationwide, an alarming 37 voting entities (36 states plus the District of Columbia) reported voting margins of 10 percent or greater, ranging from Vermont at 65 percent blue to Wyoming at 70 percent red. To boot, with the exception of Georgia (a 2020 phenomenon!), every state in the union borders on at least one state of the same color. It’s a big problem; too many people think they’re right for the simple reason that they’re surrounded by people who agree with them.

In other words, both ideologically and regionally, we’re more distanced from each other than we might be courageous enough to acknowledge – or even to realize, for that matter. We’re hunkered down. Right now, our national political scene is a giant version of an elementary school dodgeball game: sanctioned chaos where the winner is the last one standing.

If this condition existed in our organizations, we’d call it a toxic corporate culture, ensconced in silos, and – sooner rather than later – we’d be facing the challenge either of creating mutual goals or of suffering devastating consequences.

           In order for President-elect Biden to start the unifying process, we must expand our capacity and extend our willingness to meaningfully engage with those who don’t share our views. We must avoid and prepare to relinquish our cognitive biases, a message that bursts forth loud and clear from James Hogan’s 2016 book – I’m Right And You’re An Idiot: The Toxic State Of Public Discourse And How To Clean It Up – the title of which tells us exactly what our greatest challenge is.

           There it is, Mr. President-elect: your first job. Unify us.

The past we know does not have to be accepted as the designer of the future we don’t know.

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