Don’t Be a Leader in a Bubble

As we swim in the national soup of a presidential campaign, the best learning about leadership lies outside the usual back-and-forth.  Whether we are leading in an office or company, a school or family, a church or neighborhood, we have to grapple with IMPRESSIONS and FEELINGS and not just data and facts. I offer:  an example, a query, a hypothesis and an implication — all conveniently in less than a page.  The examples come from the Gallup* website and Real Clear Politics** poll summaries:

Gallup job creation

EXAMPLE:  The chart at the left shows the net percent of people saying their companies are hiring/expanding their workforce vs. those letting people go/reducing the size of their workforce.  So, for example in the survey last week, Gallup found that 44% of people say their firms are expanding, 11% contracting, for a net of 33% who say they are growing. You see the strong upward trend from January 2009.

QUERY:  Why is it that both candidates, so much of the media, and people on the street take it as a truism that we are on the “wrong track,”  (See chart below, where the red trend line represents people feeling we are on that wrong track.)  How do they “feel” this when so many “facts” trend as the ones on the green chart above do — consistently upwards?

right track wrong track

How is it that despite eight straight years of job growth, the “right track” (black) trend line slopes downwards?  (For political insiders, whether right- or left-leaning, see notes below.  I’m offering this contrast in trends not to prove the underlying economic fact, but to explore it as as a leadership quandary.)

HYPOTHESIS:  For leaders of all sorts, I posit this:  Just as individuals feel and their feelings can run counter to facts, so also do teams, cities, churches, and countries feel —  independently of the facts.

IMPLICATION:  Leaders have to ENGAGE with people where they are.   Feelings are real.  Trump is fanning the fearful wrong track feelings. And, Hilary is rightly afraid to tell people they are “wrong,” for “people feel how they feel.”  The challenge, however, is to engage them, to listen deeply, and to listen well enough — and without defensiveness (a challenge for Trump, Clinton, me, and most other humans) — so that we “get” them. Maybe when we do this, they will be interested in “getting” us.

Those who feel afraid or left out will most likely see that those (of us) in the privileged positions of parent, pastor, principal, profesor or general partner are, factually, way better off than the average Joe (not to mention the single mom Jolene).  The powerful and privileged really need not worry about our jobs, our kids, our police, etc. (True, they also don’t always see the hours often worked by the empowered, the risks taken, the worries about those under their charge; but as leaders we mostly have to just suck that up!)  If we really listen, if we listen so hard that they feel heard, we can also talk facts, and ask what they make of those. Only through listening and respectful engagement, however, will we know what’s really going on . . . with our rebel teens, disgruntled workers, lonely parents, irritable customers, or fearful voters.

Feelings first.  Engage by listening, second. Respectfully share your facts and feelings, third, if you would

Lead with your best self.



Footnote for political insiders on the right: The facts of people’s perceptions are clear; they are worried. I accept that. Yet, the facts on job growth, good jobs growth, etc. are equally clear.  Other facts, offered by some to suggest the economy is really bad — like numbers of people who have dropped out of the labor market are grossly distorted.  The “real unemployment” rate has dropped from 14.2% when Obama took office to 9.7%.  If we asked as Ronald Reagan famously did, “are you better than you were four years ago?” or eight years ago, the answer is markedly yes.  This does NOT mean I think you are wrong! Instead, I would return to the point of this blog about understanding “feelings,” to ask:  Just what has YOU feeling that the country is so off track? What’s bothering you so badly? I believe it’s real for you.

Footnote for political insiders on the left: I am sure not saying that “the system” works for everyone, nor that people don’t have good reason to “feel” left out or like our train is on the wrong track.  I am only saying in all cases — from national politics to an alienated teenager — the leaders’ (plural possessive) job is to understand first.




  • Dan
    Hi! Your comments this morning are helpful not only for world leaders dealing with trade, terrorists, and turmoil, and for our country’s crazy political situation, but also for the narrow world of a caregiver listening and hearing a care recipient’s fears and needs. I moved him last week to a full nursing facility. His care has improved substantially, eating more and better, resting easier, etc etc. I’m resting now for the first time in years, and our time together has increased and is sweet. He’s now asking about when he’s going home or when I’m going to move in with him. Feelings, emotions and facts – that’s exactly the point. As always, thanks for the insights.

    Trust you’re doing well. Jennifer’s speech at the convention was great.

  • Controlling the narrative is a critical skill in politics, and other leadership roles. This has something to do with various politically influential persons repeating untruths, no matter how often the facts are set against what they are saying. Both the Republican and the Democratic candidates for president have a long list of untrue statements they repeat. Why do we put up with this? I recall Bill Clinton talking about answering questions: He said to speak to the emotion first.

  • Dan,

    As a recruiter, I will tell you that the market is very tight, not very many people for all of the positions we need to fill, so the polls that say our economy is growing should be correct. But what we have is a skill mismatch–the people who are unemployed/underemployed don’t match the jobs we have to fill. That’s why education is so important! We need to provide educational opportunities for as many people as we can, and the people who need it need to take advantage of it!

  • Hi Dan,

    I was intrigued by your argument because it used a simple example to state the case. But being a small business owner that has struggled through the economy, in including the “economics” and the “politics” of our most recent Great Recession, I find the argument, along with the chart intended to persuade, perhaps just a bit too simple. The question about why those running for office are communicating either that we are on the wrong track or that the system is not really working yet, seems backwards as well. I instead wonder why so many folks feel we are on the wrong track as evidenced by who ended up as the GOP nominee and who stirred up the most controversy seen in recent history on the DEM side (who didn’t end up as the nominee).

    I venture that this feeling of being on the wrong track has more to do with the other trends we see when looking at additional graphs depicting how this “recovery” has been going, and how in several ways it is so very different than most all other recessionary recoveries. These are the types of facts (and trends) that have actually already occurred, and that I believe underlie the nervousness many (regardless of party) are feeling about hopes for a strong America again, coupled with the dissatisfaction being felt and factually experienced – including by myself – under both parties, for quite some time.

    The link below shows additional and important chart trends comparing this recovery to others. Just like your chart seemed to speak volumes by an “uptrend line,” I think several “views” of the facts — collectively — help uncover deeper and more complex underlying issues as to what we are hearing and seeing in the political arena during this interesting election cycle. These trends along with others (the steep rise in youth-on-youth crime in our urban centers for instance) also underlie the “feelings” one may have when asked about the direction in which our country seems to be heading. In the end, it is far more complex than a single simple uptrend chart, while certainly factual, depicts only a tiny sliver of the more complex total picture.

    From the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:


    …while reviewing and “feeling” multiple facts – so not sure we are the right track — but also while remaining positive, optimistic and engaged as a business leader to find and explore as many right tracks as possible,

    Dr. Anna Amato
    Founder & Caretaker, Company Culture
    edtec central, LLC

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