Last night, I attended an SMU Tate Lecture series featuring Tom Brokaw, Doris Kearns Goodwin and leading political commentator former presidential advisor David Gergen. I, along with everyone in the audience, was stunned when Gergen said, “I got a call from an ambassador from the Middle East who wanted to thank me. When I asked him why, he said that the Middle East had reached a milestone. Middle East politics now looks simple in comparison to U.S. politics.” Whether you are on the left or right, this is a bitter pill to swallow. There is a shared sense of frustration about what is happening, but more importantly, what is not happening, in our political discourse at both a local and national level. It is not unlike how Americans felt during other times of upheaval, such as the Industrial Revolution, when change was happening so fast, and it seemed beyond everyone’s control.
So, what is our path forward? What can we learn from past leaders about how to navigate successfully through change? I have spent the summer really thinking about these questions, re-reading my undergraduate books on political philosophy and have formed a few ideas for collective discussion.
Stop the Blame Game – Dr. Phil is famous for saying, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?” I think we should be reframing this for our policymakers and co-workers, asking, “Would you rather be right or make progress?” It is easy to get caught in the blame game trap, yet it takes everyone involved in a negative direction and wastes energy. It is one of the primary reasons why we are at a deadlock in Washington, D.C. Early in my career, when my team at the American Heart Association made a mistake, we were very intentional around our language and called it “a skip in the CD.” It depersonalized the mistake and focused us on finding solutions rather than assigning blame. So, while you must fight for your position, you should never burn a bridge you might need to cross again. Blame never solves the problem and only hurts your ability to build widespread support for your ideas.
Focus on the Marathon, Not the Sprint – We have so many issues to solve, it is tempting to try focus on getting the quick win. The folly with this philosophy is that it ignores a fundamental truth – there is an inverse relationship between cost, speed and quality in any project. Many of our toughest problems are complicated and intricate. If you want to solve them quickly, you often sacrifice quality. Or, in the case of politics, you leave people out of the conversation, and it leads to discord. Similarly, as we discussed in a recent popular Social TrendSpotter post, if you jump on a solution without truly understanding the problem, you often end up with unintended consequences, which may be worse than the original problem. To win at the marathon, it is important to use tools, such as social alchemy, to truly understand the problem, experiment with innovative options and focus on continuous improvement. The process may take longer, but you will go farther in the long run.
Choose Hope over Fear – The statistics can be daunting. The pace of progress can be disheartening. Yet, progress has been made in the past and will continue to be made – not through fear, but through the collective hope we all have for a better tomorrow. How do I know this? Because we have done it before and can do it again. But, to do it again, we as leaders have to do a better job at managing the optics of our causes. It is easy to share negative statistics and stories or tear down someone else’s good work, but it takes real commitment to elevate the bright spots that are happening every day and give credit to others for their hard work. Our greatest presidents did this. Lincoln was famous for the inclusion of outside viewpoints in his decisions. Franklin D. Roosevelt used fireside chats to help Americans make sense of the changing times and focus attention more on a shared vision. To win, especially in the face of challenges, we have to be on the same team and we have to unite around a common sense of destiny.
Our greatest challenge right now is bringing people back together toward a shared sense of purpose. We need to remember who we are and what we have accomplished. We need to fight for what binds us together and against people and organizations that seek to divide us. And, we need to work each and every day not just to be great, but act great. We need to swallow the bitter pills, but keep looking for the bright spots. We welcome your feedback and ideas of what can help change the tide in our political discourse and what is needed to amplify this important discussion.