How to Lead in Politically Divisive Times

Thanks to so many of you who commented on last week’s blog, offering feedback on the “Clear the Air” series and expressing interest in future topics.  A good number asked me to write about “thoughts on leading as American citizens in this unsettling time.”  With the primary tomorrow, that feels timely.

I believe the major leadership message is this:  We are not under imminent threat! Hear me out.

From the beginnings of human history, humans learned that being alone is dangerous.

In the beginnings of your particular history, you also learned . . . that being alone is dangerous.

To diminish the existential danger, each human builds identity through their associations with family – nuclear and extended – neighborhood, tribe, sect, faith, party, country, as well as certain conceptual ideals (hard work, faith, freedom, etc.).  The groups and ideologies give the individual protection – from enemies and from chaos. These identity attachments cross our wires, back and forth from psyche to physiology and back.  Our brains feel pleasure with victory, high-fiving and yelling: “Go Blue!” “Go Bears!” And we feel personal pain when our tribes lose. Individuals will fight for their parties, as if for their individual selves, because attacks on the Jews, the Dems, the gays, the white men literally feel like attacks upon their personal identity.

When Hillary called people deplorables, she hit a nerve – think of it as a physical nerve because it almost functions that way.  Factory workers, people who are proud they are simple, truck drivers, bible readers, honest right wing intellectuals felt: she’s attacking me!  If she’s elected, she will never protect us!  When Trump attacks immigrants, I remember: my grandparents were immigrants. And when he lies and it matters not to so many, it terrifies me. I fear total chaos if truth is devalued. I feel anxious, afraid. At bottom, both groups are made to feel like enemies, and both feel they are losing their country – whether the borders that literally define it, or the inclusiveness that animates.  This opposition rests on two lies: That conservatives don’t understand the value of inclusion, and that liberals don’t understand we need borders. But it’s easier to hate the enemy (call ‘em all racists or radicals) than to figure out how we preserve BOTH sets of values.

I am a sucker! I know that 98% of what is (a) dividing the country, (b) making it so hard for congress to reach reasonable solutions, and (c) literally causes my stomach acids to work overtime – is caused by FEAR, the clinging to TRIBE, and the resulting antipathy to ENEMIES (of the my people).  My rationality gets high-jacked.

Tomorrow is all about turnout, they say!  To put it in the frame I’ve set forth this equals:   If our tribe turns out, we defeat the enemy.  But we all lose, because the prognosticators seem sure of only one thing:  2020 begins on Wednesday and the next 24 months will be worse than the past 24.  More fear. More distortion. More division.

Fear gets ratcheded up: The right cries to its tribes:  Immigrants, Muslims, Nancy Pelosi, Antifa and Bernie Sanders, they are plotting to get us.  The left screams to its tribes:  Trump and Kavanaugh, and White Nationalists are ready to steal your Medicare, cause a Recession, take over women’s bodies, eliminate coverage for Pre-existing conditions, and heat your planet; they are plotting to get us.

Are there real threats in these policies? Of course.

But as FDR said in another era and another context, the biggest thing we have to fear is fear itself.  Check your own fear – 20 times a day if you have to.  Then know that your “enemy” is afraid, too. And know that engaging in fear-driven reason and argument – will only trigger an equal and opposite reaction from them.  Such reasoning doesn’t persuade and seldom allows you to learn anything from or about the other.

Wednesday morning may be a “Go Blue” or a “Go Red” celebration day. America will remain divided, whether the Congress is or is not. Trump will be Trump. That should be clear.

So, will THE PEOPLE succumb to fear or begin to ask each other – and tell DC – how we would like to be governed, as we each

Lead with our best self.

  • Dan, this is really nice. I think you left out one really important part… no matter what happens on Tuesday, remember to consciously articulate what you’re grateful for. Do it with a friend. Do it with a colleague. Do it with a stranger at Starbucks or RSF. But just do it, out loud, with someone. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt if the person you’re telling this to heard you were grateful for them and the role they play in your life! Fiat Lux and Go Bears!

  • Dan, very thought provoking as usual. As you are well aware, I am a leader of a private manufacturing corporation, therefore, it is essential that I keep my political thoughts in check and simply lead by example. Believe me that I have had to learn this the hard way….

  • FEAR is also False Evidence Appearing Real. I don’t know who should be credited with this (not me) and I believe it to be true based on my past experiences.

  • Dan, a wise and caring mentor of mine, Roger Harrison, reminded me years ago that the opposite of fear is love. And the late Maj. General John Stanford said to me in an interview I did with him that the secret to success in life is to “Stay in love.” Perhaps we’d all be wise to follow this advice and learn, again quoting General Stanford, to “Love ’em and lead ’em.” Just think how different things could be if all leaders lead with love for all their constituents.

  • Disagree. I’m not afraid of my political opponents, I just don’t agree with them. The homily we heard on Sunday started from the text “Love your neighbor as yourself” to ask how many of us allowed political disagreements to unravel our social relationships. On the way out, I mentioned to my wife that I don’t think I ever allowed a political difference to undermine a friendship, and she suggested that may be because I don’t have any friends of the other persuasion. So I examined my contact list and mentioned at least four recent lunch dates with people whose votes were against mine this week. I don’t fear them, or hate them, just disagree profoundly, on sound rational bases.

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