Civic Leaders & Business Leaders Must Step Up

I’ve been reading whatever I can find these days about societal polarization: how bad it is right now in our country; other times in our history when it has been this bad; what might cause it to get better or worse. Good news (I guess), this isn’t unprecedented. For example, the ‘Gilded Age’ – 1870s to 1900 – was violent and highly disruptive. Bad news: our two primary political parties are currently the unchallenged drivers of polarization, because it keeps them relevant and in the drivers’ seat of selecting our elected leaders. I don’t blame them for taking advantage of their opportunity – but I think for the good of our country and our society, other civic leaders need to step into our political discourse and take some responsibility for re-establishing aspects of what has made the U.S.A…well, the U.S.A. I keep thinking about the reality that in just a few weeks, after a very consequential election, we have to come together as a country. We are not ready for that work.

Think about what we have lost: the art of compromise, the capacity for collegiality, the fundamental gracefulness of civility. In a democracy, a culture of ‘winner take all’ fuels the tribalism we are seeing take hold. It cannot be tolerated for too long: it tears at the very nature of our shared allegiance to the experiment that is the United States of America – none of us is as good as all of us. Together, we have inspired and awed the world with our aspirations, our risk-taking, our collective courage and our willingness to lead. All of that legacy is genuinely at risk. And the price we will pay if it is gone…unimaginable for our role in global commerce, in national security, in opportunities for our children and their children. It may seem melodramatic to suggest we are living at such a significant moment – but we are, I believe, in such a moment.

So, what to do? I’m thinking that anyone who provides leadership — in a company, in a community, in an institution, needs to stop tiptoeing around hyper-partisanship and face it head-on. We must learn — re-learn — how to talk to each other about political choices, about our expectations of elected leaders, and acknowledge the extraordinary potential of a functioning democracy. We must be open to the possibility that each one of us has good intentions about our country. The future success of our companies, our workforce, our communities depends on ending this downward spiraling of our relationships with each other. Speaking frankly, any honest and serious study of our history makes clear neither political party is worthy of unchecked loyalty or fealty. Ironically, ‘political behavior’ is by definition situational and subject to improvisation. None of us should voluntarily give away our right to have a mind of our own, to withhold our support for unworthy political gamesmanship. As has been noted in periodic critiques: they work for us.

I’m not naïve about how all-consuming this work might be – and I’ve spent time and energy trying to talk myself out of the very work I’m advocating here. But now I’m thinking the work can start in very accessible places and ways. We can practice listening to each other – seeking out people who are starting from a different position than our own. Really listening – not just waiting to advocate our existing point of view. And then – and this is key – committing to finding compromise and/or common ground. We each must be prepared to cede something to re-establish common ground on which to stand.

The disruptive aspect of my idea? I’m suggesting it is time to INTRODUCE political discourse into all the places we have, for many years, tried to suggest as inappropriate: in our places of worship; in our schools; in our workplaces. We’ve worried about these possibilities because of the concern that power dynamics will undermine honest, equitable discussions: would a young employee be willing to tell a senior executive what they really think? Will that executive treat the opinion as worthy of consideration? Would the leader in a school setting really ‘hear’ the view of a union member? Would the union member be open to the complexities of the administrator’s challenge? Would a parishioner hazard to share a contrary view with her pastor? Would the pastor respectfully discuss it? On a purely human level, we know that the answer to these questions is YES. We genuinely respect our colleagues, our teachers, our neighbors. It is the filter of partisan politics – and organizational power – that has created the unwillingness to hear each other – or to acknowledge the authenticity of what we heard.

Our collective success depends on accepting the premise that we have more to gain by coming together than we have to lose by continuing on our current path. I am a realist that some will disagree with my assertion that we have more to gain. Finding common ground in our current environment seems a stretch. But I choose to be an optimist and will advocate for our collective progress as a democracy in every way I can. None of us is as good as all of us.

God Bless America.

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