How far apart are we really?
Moving the needle on our public life need not be a huge exercise
The collective sigh expressed in the streets of many cities when Joe Biden was confirmed as the next president quickly gave way to a new challenge that’s been percolating for a long time — certainly longer than just the last four years. How far apart are Americans in our outlooks and beliefs and of our opinions about the direction of the country? Can we pull it back together? Prognosticators all say, sure, we can do that because we’ve done similar things before.
But the details each time are different and finding common ground this time requires that we avoid looking for cookie-cutter approaches.
One surprising answer may be that we aren’t far apart at all. It will take some work to convince people of our relative closeness and before we can even make the attempt, we need to understand leadership.
Bringing together seemingly disparate sides in American life doesn’t necessarily start with building a bridge or any other metaphorical device. This time it starts with understanding the nature of leadership and, most importantly, the effect of its absence.
Leadership has two basic identities — one that assumes a leader is already in place — which invites circular reasoning because all that’s needed is, well, leadership. This idea assumes leadership is the same as power and that the details of leading can be taught. While leadership can be taught, another definition suggests that leadership is a quality of an individual. To be sure we need both kinds today.
Leadership is not simply a position in an organizational chart, that’s just a map of how power flows through an organization. At least in a democracy, leaders are chosen by the consent of the governed and in asking for the mantle of leader, people usually demonstrate their abilities at least enough to gain the needed votes. Often this means how one leads one’s own life long before one throws a hat in the ring.
But what happens when a leader abdicates leadership responsibilities but still clings to the trappings of power. That’s the case Americans found themselves in during the Trump presidency. Donald Trump entered the presidency with the support of a minority of the population (Hillary Clinton famously got about 3 million more votes than Trump) and he never tried to present himself as the leader of all Americans.
Over the course of the Trump administration there was frequent reference to Trump’s base of supporters and the observation of his apparent lack of interest in expanding it. His strategy for winning a second term rested on his belief that he could simply energize his base and repeat his minority win of 2016. Wash, rinse, repeat. No.
In his treatise on leadership and power, “The Prince,” Nicolo Machiavelli said that a leader could be loved or feared but not both. But Machiavelli’s work was only intended for gaining power by more or less absolute rulers (i.e. Princes or tyrants). While exercising power is fundamental to leadership it is not the same thing as possessing power in a situation where leaders need the consent of the governed. Trump clearly understood this medieval idea, engendering love in his base even while instilling something like hatred in his opponents.
In a lecture by retired general and Secretary of State under George W. Bush that I once attended, Colin Powell said that a leader is someone that people would want to follow around just to see what they would do next. That gets to the magnetism of leadership and blows simple power-through-org-chart out of the water — people willingly follow leaders regardless of the power structure. Powell collected his leadership experience into 13 rules which you can find here and are worth rumination over. Importantly, each rule is outward focused on the people led, not on the leader per se.
Still that’s not enough because it primarily describes how people already possessing some form of power become leaders and power and leadership are not the same. What happens when there is no leader? What causes leaders to arise and are they equal?
In his article for Harvard Business School, “Are you a Level-Six Leader?” Mitch Maidique identified six levels of leadership including, Sociopath (!), Opportunist, Chameleon, Achiever, Builder, and Transcendent. In the article Maidique acknowledges, “There is not much to celebrate about the first three levels, although certainly levels two and three abound in organizations. There’s much more to admire in levels four, five, and six.”
It’s worth paying attention to Maidique’s analysis of the level six leader. “Level-six leaders transcend their political party, their ethnic or racial group, and even their institutions. They focus on how to benefit all of society. “These are ‘global citizens,’ in the words of Howard Gardner’s recent book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, who watch out not only for numero uno but for the wider public as well.”
Those are good ideas and they may augur well for a Biden presidency but they don’t get us very far in understanding the transition from what we have now, which could be argued is leadership by a sociopath and his many minions, to reconciling as a people. So here’s an idea: In the leadership vacuum of the Trump presidency we didn’t have too few leaders as the popular imagination might suggest, we had too many.
Dr. Ed Brenegar is a leadership guru and consultant to organizations seeking to build better leadership. On his website, Brenegar says, “Leaders take personal initiative to create impact and make a difference that matters,” when discussing leadership vacuum.
From this it may be reasonable to suggest that in the absence of real leadership during the Trump years, many people took personal initiative to assert themselves as leaders. Some attempts were better than others. For many that meant actualizing the Hollywood idea of a hero, one who fights, carries a gun and talks tough. That’s not exactly right for the real world though.
But other people of both genders have asserted their leadership in these times absent the macho trappings and using words and the force of their ideas to lead. Stacy Abrams, failed to win the governorship of Georgia in 2018 in an election that was seen by many as flawed but then went on to initiate Fair Fight a group dedicated to registering new voters and to making Georgia elections fairer. She and her group scored a significant coup in the last election whatever the final vote counts. Abrams started with nothing a couple of years ago and through the force of her personality and her ideas, people decided to follow her just to see what she’d do next. What she did was to turn bright red Georgia into some shade of purple. Now that’s a leader.
Here’s how you do it
So how do we get from today’s chaotic public life to something more orderly and respectful? The short answer is that this is an egalitarian society so don’t expect a sea change but know this: Real leaders model good behavior. They don’t whine about their situation or status or the fairness of the status quo. Real leaders lead, first by example and later through inspiration.
Bringing the sides together in America shouldn’t be that hard. In South Africa, for instance, Nelson Mandela modeled good behavior and he didn’t dwell on past injustices. He focused on the South Africa that he wanted and knew could emerge. He wasn’t perfect and the governing experiment in South Africa isn’t finished just as it continues in America.
By setting an example through respect and fairness we can expect to lower the temperature. Many of the people who took leadership upon themselves when that seemed like the best approach will be happy to stand down because they can see the successes of others who are better at it. That sounds like pie in the sky thinking but it happens all the time.
America has always been a big and boisterous melting pot, often at the brink of boiling over. It rarely does though because individual freedom enables us to take the mantle of leadership when we feel it is necessary and that same freedom enables us to relinquish it when we find something better. It’s quite possible we’ve found that something better and that the boisterousness will subside in the months ahead.