Mending Division in Your Leadership World

Read if there is division in your world.  If not, skip it.

Two stories. 4 points of view. Please see if you can withhold judgment.

Story 1.

A dear mentee and friend.  He’d spent more than a handful of years in prison for a crime he committed as a teen.  He’s an inspiration to me.  He was pulled over a few weeks ago.  He’s nearly a foot taller than me.  Black.  Police officer asked for his license and insurance.  They checked out and he returned them. Did not explain why he’d pulled my friend over.  My friend said, “Thank you, officer. Be safe out there.” The office said back quickly, “What did you say?”  My friend replied, “I said, ‘Be safe out there.'”

My friend said he perceived that the police officer thought it was a veiled threat. “Dan,” he said, “One thing I learned in prison is that law enforcement officers have a dangerous job. That’s all I was saying, ‘Be safe!‘”  Fortunately, the incident ended there.

One story. Agreed upon words. Different perspectives. Wildly different presumed intent.  Also, different power relationship.

Story 2.

On Tuesday President Trump called the widow of a soldier who was killed on duty in Niger. The deceased soldier’s aunt who raised him felt disrespected by the President’s words and tone. The President rejected this interpretation. The words in question were surrounding what the deceased soldier “signed up for,” words that General Kelly later in the week said were customary, respectful, the words his son’s commanding officer had used while informing General Kelly of his son’s death.

One story. Agreed upon words. Different perspectives. Wildly different presumed intent.  Also, different power relationship.

Brief Interpretations and Relevance.

  1. There is no one reality to our important stories (even if we could play back theses videotapes, as we’ve seen with the dashcams, we could readily disagree both about what was happening and what the participants were perceiving). There are perceptions. One speaks with whatever intent. The other listens, based on their experiences in the past.  The listener INFERS some meaning and intent.  This is often not what the speaker IMPLIED.  If you don’t mind my saying so, you are probably doing that now with me:  For example, some will infer that I’m denying the reality of the cop’s actions and intent.  Others may infer that my friend really was being threatening to the officer and/or they may infer that I am naively protecting him. Some will infer that I am in denial about the President’s (they might say: narcissistic) intent. And others will infer that I have used one word or another that implies that the President really meant to insult the family.
  2. How SHOULD we listen to each other when we come with views – and views that we are convinced are grounded in clearer realities than others hold?  Maybe see a few things:
    1. None of us reading this piece was there in either of my stories. Admit our ignorance.
    2. Acknowledge that people can feel hurt — all 4 people, even this President — when people say things that feel threatening to them.  All 4 people in these stories felt threatened (and yes, this is my perception, based on my experience).
    3. Acknowledge that when I (or “my people”) feel hurt it does not mean that the other intended that hurt. What I infer may not be what they intended or had any desire to imply.
    4. ALSO acknowledge that our words and actions can be felt as hurtful.  Our denial of intent does not deny the fact that the other genuinely felt hurt.  For instance, the officer who pulled over my friend and gave him no reason as to why he did so, could reasonably be expected to know that such a stop would likely be intimidating and confusing to an African American. He would have done well simply to acknowledge it.
    5. Finally, see that when we have power – as boss, principal, police officer, teacher, etc. – our actions have a multiplicative power.  If I unwitting say something – which I likely do on a weekly basis – that offends my African American students or my Republican students – I should not wash my hands because I am acting in good faith, with no intent, seemingly implying nothing.  If someone is hurt, whether I intended it or not, I am truly sorry, and I am in the best place to own my offenses.

If we are going to bring our offices, communities of worship, cities, COUNTRY together we need to sharpen some disciplines of listening – minding our minds and respecting others hearts and minds – to

lead with our best selves.


  • I think this is a great interpretation of what could have happened in these scenarios and what happens almost daily in our lives. It is difficult to understand they “why’s” that drive our perception when we seem to disagree with the other side. It may just be a lack of understanding, it could be our current emotional state, or it could be that the action/words were actually offensive. I believe that we all have a choice to be offended or not, the choice to search out intent, and the choice to seek to understand. Thank you for approaching this topic with what I think was a very balanced outlook on both of the scenarios that you chose.

  • I have written it before, but it would be useful to add a psychiatrist visit to your classroom. You think that everyone can have their feelings hurt, including President Trump. There are persons who’s psychological make up is such that they do not feel hurt. Learning about the psychology of narcissists, and various degrees of sociopaths, I think is a powerful tool for leaders.

    Some persons are talented at twisting another persons words to make it sound like they are hurt, or ought to be hurt. Telling the difference between a genuinely hurt person and a good actor is also a good skill to develop as far as you can.

    Things are often not so simple, whether in politics, business, or personal relations.

    • Mark John,
      I confess I’m always a bit flummoxed when you raise issues of abnormal or at least pathological psychology. I just don’t know what to do with that. I’m not saying it isn’t true. I just don’t know how we’d know whether President Trump “feels” hurt or not. It’s just not knowable.
      He may be abnormal. For example, I don’t think we have seen any tape of him expressing empathy, and even if we could watch, it would be hard to “prove” he was with or without empathy.
      I do think it’s fairly predictable that a “normal” or even a “crazy” person who was criticized publicly would “feel attacked,” even if not “feeling hurt.” No?
      At any rate, I would posit that Trump is unusual in the annals of American political history, and therefore not a great topic to speculate about in Reading for Leading (which is about some semblance of being “usual”) nor even in my classes, as I’m not convinced there’s a great incidence of such seemingly abnormal and narcissistic extremes in typical American business, politics and society.
      Maybe I am naive!

  • I saw a very new opera yesterday based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce (a very short story – it would take 5 minutes to read: It is open to many interpretations — as is the opera as further interpreted by the composer and librettist — but one of the messages which leapt out at me is not only that there is a multiplicity of ways people make sense of events, but even more concerning is that people all too often do not really hear anyone else’s point of view. So your blog post is very important, Dan, particularly in these fraught times when there seems to be an intention of misunderstanding layered upon the usual danger of misunderstanding!

    • Margaret,
      It is a very short story, but I had to read it three times 🙂 and I’m still not sure I understand it!
      Happy to read more!

  • Your article really hits home this week. As a leader/supervisor/manager I remind myself daily to think of how words and actions – both mine and others in the organization – are interpreted by those I lead. It can be exhausting, but just when I forget to stay on top of the awareness I see the division rearing it’s ugly head. Your points are on one hand so obvious, but still seem to be a practice too few leaders internalize.

    When I was a young military lawyer a superior officer told me I needed to omit the word “that” from my writing. I was horrified and interpreted it as an attack on my ability. In reality it was brilliant advice. Please don’t misinterpret my observation but I believe you may benefit from the advice of my superior officer.

    • Sara,
      I’ve never gotten THAT great advice before. 🙂
      Seriously! I searched on it and had used it 36 times.
      I appreciate the feedback. I’ll be more mindful.

  • Well said! I had a conversation just yesterday on this very issue. I echo your sentiments in the blog. All have a different perspective based on the individual’s frame of reference. I appreciate you adding that we need to own our part in offending someone once we become aware of it regardless of our intentions, especially when in a place of authority. In these cases, we must use wisdom before speaking to the masses because it can have, as you stated, a multiplicative power.

    Thank you for keeping it REAL!

  • If everyone would read the Four Agreements book and live by them then we would be having far fewer of these conversations. For those who have not:
    1. Always be impeccable with your word
    2. Never assume anything
    3. Never take anything personally
    4. Always do your best at everything you do

    Remembering these simple lessons helps remove some of the power of “perceptions” and can shift our own personal “point of view”

  • Dan and Margaret, Both of you make very good sense. It is very difficult for each of us to actually feel or interpret another’s point of view. We all try hard to be sensitive to others, and may think that we are doing that, but it simply is not always the case. Trust, respect, and trying to understand each other is really key, Then we are more open to understanding or attempting to understand and forgive when we make a mistake.

  • CNBC had David Novak talking about leadership as a guest host this morning, so maybe they could use another leadership expert?

  • Maybe flummoxed is a good thing. About 3 to 4% of person fit in the sociopath range, so think that every kindergarten class has one. Think of the idea of the black swan, if you are not ready for the lower possibility, like a destructive personality attempting to take over your organization; then you are not ready to lead. This weakness/ lack of knowledge will be your Achilles heal. I am not trying to focus specifically on President Trump, but on others I have seen join groups, or become a top executive in an organization. Knowing how to deal with the 96% is good, but there are the minority who make life and leadership difficult.

    • Marc Sean, thanks so much for answering my flummoxed reply. Where does the number come from? The three to four percent? I think you’re raising a really important point. It made me think of changing my leadership curriculum to include something about dealing with bullies. The stories of Weinstein and what Trump seems to be doing right now in interviewing potential us attorneys is so deeply troubling. And I think you’re right that fairly normal, fairly Nice Guys Like Me don’t always appreciate that some people play by a different set of rules.

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