Leading Through Division

Could Trump Kaepernick and the NFL teach us all something about leading in our own individual, collective and sometimes divisive lives? I think so.

If you haven’t been following the National Football League, a controversy began over a year ago when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit during the national anthem. (If you have been following, you might skip to the paragraph that begins, “Similar divides mark…”)  Kaepernick chose not to stand to protest what he considered disparate racial treatment in America, epitomized by the numerous police killings of African American men and African American boys. He was sitting down in solidarity with those who didn’t feel like they were fully included in the American dream.* Other players have followed suit.

Many decry Kaepernick’s actions. They feel he insults the American flag and the national anthem, two of our most precious symbols of American patriotism.  In addition, they and others see Kaepernick’s actions as creating a greater rift of division in a country already split.

The story got more complicated this year with two additional events. Kaepernick was released by the 49ers and no other team has elected to pick him up. It’s fairly widely believed that he is at least an excellent backup quarterback and potentially could return to his remarkable form when he lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and nearly again in 2013.  Most on every side of this discussion would say that it’s not his football talent but his controversial quality that has caused NFL owners to avoid bringing him into their city and their stadium. This has spurred more players to take a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick. They are suggesting that whether you agree with him or not, he should be allowed to speak, and that blackballing him is a non-American action.

Enter President Trump.  In his inimitable way,  he has suggested  that NFL owners should tell players who fail to give respect to these American symbols and unity: “You’re fired!” His comments in speeches and tweets drove a deeper wedge deeper into the Great Divide. Over the weekend many more players took a knee, in opposition to what they viewed as the president’s support of racism and-or his repressive views toward the protections of free speech. The Steelers team remained in the locker room during the Anthem. Others, like Tom Brady, interlocked their arms with African American players to express solidarity. Player protests spread to the college ranks and Major League Baseball.  Many other players put their hands over their hearts in the traditional symbol. Trump’s base cheered his tough stance. Many on “both sides” feel pain. Many ambivalence. Many anger.

Similar divides mark the American cultural landscape when it comes to immigration, legalization of drugs, gender equality, abortion, and religious freedom. The divides run between and among us like fractured cracks in dried earth. What to do to lead?  I offer three suggestions:

1. See.  That in times of insecurity and division our minds are psycho-socially engineered to become more tribal.  Under stress and threat, we retreat into (and attack from) the tribes that will protect us – “my girls,” “my boys,” “the moral majority,” “progressives,” “homies,” “feminists,” “patriots.” You know who your “peeps” are.  Of course, the irony is that we create a vicious downwards cycle: insecurity breeds tribalism, tribalism breeds greater insecurity as we become threats to each other.  So, notice this tendency in yourself!

2. Listen to “them.” Not to fashion your next winning reply! Not to show they’re dumb, immoral, and screwed up.  Not to go back and tell your tribe, “You won’t believe what this idiot said to me…”  Kaepernick has something to say. Listen. So do those who want football to just be football. Listen. And so do those who feel there is a real place for us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder as Americans. Listen.

3. Build on reciprocal wisdom. If we listen, we can build “more perfect unions.” That’s hard. It’s easier to retreat to your tribe who will tell you how right you are. Fox and MSNBC, for example, can give you all the tribal righteousness you need in these deeply unsettling times. But we need listeners to listen across the divides. We need to water the soil that is dried and cracked.

The flag and the national anthem are profoundly idealistic notions. Can we (on the left) not admire those who hold their hands over their hearts, not smugly, but because they really do believe in this amazing aspirational country. And can we (on the right) not admire those who sit or take a knee? Taking a knee is a profound gesture; Catholics call it genuflecting, humbling themselves before a crucified-risen God. Football players collectively take a knee when a player from either team has been hurt and is being attended to by doctors. It’s a way of going beyond the game, beyond my team or my needs, to a deeper level of connection.

How might you watch your own tendencies to tribal safety and superiority, listen to the “others,” and build a deeper level of humility, understanding and creativity to

Lead with your best self?

*Here is how this began, in Kaepernick’s words:   “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  From NFL.com

  • I know you are right, but it is hard to continue to listen, when (mostly) white men have colonized, enslaved, committed genocide, oppressed, jim crowed, etc and been on the wrong side of history everytime…and yet they still think they are right. That boggles my mind. It just does.

  • Very timely Dan,

    I have a different take on this situation. I am not taking any sides on the right or wrong way to show respect to the flag or national anthem. What is most intriguing to me, in light of the purpose of your column, is the leadership aspects that surround this situation.

    What Trump is doing is magnificent! I know, I know shock and horror. Well, this is the same thing that Trump does so well. He is an island, on purpose. Upset and irritate everyone and then lets see where it goes. His methods force everyone to be angry. So, you ask, where is this going?

    When has the general population ever become so engaged in what is or is not patriotic? 911 – that was a horrific way to become patriotic and it was not of our doing. So what better way to get everyone discussing the oppressing that exists, in all of its different forms, throughout our country. It is not fun, it is not good, but, thank goodness at least it has become a discussion. Is there collateral damage? You bet, but when you get into issues that have to do with actual life and death and dramatic issues that dive into the actual souls of ALL people, how can it not become explosive.

    We have an opportunity to become a better people, a better country for ALL people. So if there is some Trump grandstand that angers ALL then so be it!!!

    Leadership by “pissing” off everone!


    David T. Swallow

    • David,
      I deeply appreciate this view. You and I – educated by Jesuit priests – faced their crazy opinions. They woke us up. Caused us to think. Got in our faces. Plato said, “it takes a contradictory impression to awaken reflection.”
      I agree that there is great benefit in causing us to ask these questions. Look at Sara’s beautiful comment before yours. You could say, “Trump caused her realization.”
      But if you are saying that Trump KNOWS that he’s doing this, I would have to disagree. I think his behavior is much better explained by his narcissism and tribalism. But I don’t KNOW that. If he were being intentional – waking people up as the Jesuits did – he could then channel some of the disruption he is causing. But he doesnt’ do this. He doubles and triples down on his opinion as though he is right, and NOT as though he is trying to encourage us to reflect and to share.
      Thanks for contributing!

  • In so many ways, we as leaders choose to lead in the wrong direction. We believe that we are doing and standing up for the right things however, what ends up happening is a greater divide. It is my opinion no matter what news channel you watch you receive a slanted view. We as leaders and as a country have allowed media and hype to dictate our thought processes and our actions. I believe that when we choose to make a difference in our local community, love our neighbors and make good, moral, and just decisions we will start to see more unity than division. Whether that means listening to someone with an opposing opinion, working beside them even when you disagree, or seeing others from a compassionate heart we (democrats, republicans, black, white, Hispanic, etc…) can learn to appreciate and love others for who they are as human beings not based on politics, religion or race. There is value in each and every one of us and we need to see it in others as we want them to see it in us.

  • When Snowden exposed the extent of NSA spying, the conversation was all about the chase and how this was the wrong way to reveal the information. The messenger. Now, in this sopa opera, the conversation is about the right or wrong way to protest. How little we have learned about the epidemic of events that lead to Kaepernick’s protest.

    Trump remains an ironic guru – he leads by stirring the pot and we are talking about patriotism and the flag. There is some good in that, but we are not talking much about police brutality and racial injustice.

    Eventually Snowden’s revelations did get some notice, though not near as much as the drama of his life. And some awareness of social injustice is increasing. Just as I hear more about climate change than I did a year ago. The process is messy and inefficient and ugly and if that’s leadership, I want no part of it. And while I am coming out from my post-election rock enough to dip my toes in discussions and am able to not get reduced to black and while thinking of my own, for me, leadership means keep coming back to what the real issue is. In this case, I would say “The Colony of a Nation” by Chris Hayes is an excellent resource. I would like to “lead” more people to read it.

    It is a tangent to that focus – or is it? – that to refer to anyone as an SOB is unacceptable from any leader. That goes double for someone who is protesting from his heart on behalf of the less fortunate.

  • Good afternoon, Dan,
    I believe people should be able to do what they want. They should be able to stand, sit or do cartwheels. (I’m sorry but they are getting ridiculous about somebody not standing). Our government don’t let students say the Pledge of Allegiance in school fear of offending someone. They don’t honor Betsy Ross who sewn the flag so our government shouldn’t get all crazy about not standing for the flag! Not everyone goes to church but still believe in God!

    Your number two fan, Dan! I know the great Mrs G. is your number one fan! I’ll settle for second! 🙂 🙂

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