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Sunday, June 5, 2016

This Election Year, (Almost) All Bets Are Off

I haven't written a new blog post in over a year. I was finally moved to do so after a humbling experience.

I realized that I knew nothing about politics anymore.

For years I thought I was pretty good at reading the political field and understanding what was going on. I predicted that NJ governor Jim Florio would be beaten by then unknown Christine Todd Whitman before anyone else I knew. I predicted Obama's going all the way well before he beat out Hillary for the nomination. I held forth on every election to everyone who would listen. 

Then I predicted Donald Trump would fizzle out, the public quickly tiring of his style. I was so sure that, even though not normally a betting man, I bet four different people that he would never be the GOP nominee. Cue "the humbling".

I figured I had gotten too set in my ways, and was using an old map to read new terrain. Maybe even my own political views are blinding me.

Could I reboot my perspective? Or do I just mutter "hell in a handbasket" to my middle-aged self and sulk? 

One belief I always have had (and you could call it a bias or a type of faith, depending on your taste)  is that the world is, ultimately, comprehensible. It makes sense, if regarded properly. People act rationally, once you understand their perspective and motives. There are right anwers, or at minimum "least wrong answers" to every question. In short, our lack of understanding is not because the world cannot be understood, but rather because we are asking the wrong questions. As author Henry Miller once said "Chaos is a name for an order not yet understood".

I'm trying out a new map. 

So here goes:

One way to look at liberal democracy is as a system for the non-violent selection and change in leadership. Throughout history, and in most countries in the world today, leaders were whoever was strongest or had the support of the military. In a liberal democratic republic like ours, a leader needs the support, or votes, of its citizens. Citizens who are presumed to be knowlegable and responsible enough to all have a say in who gets to lead. 

The next question naturally arises - what type of leaders should citizens elect? And here I challenged myself to see if there is a way to define a good leader regardless of their political views. A "baseline" for elected officials.

During a class on leadership I was introduced to writings of Edwin Friedman. Friedman was a leadership training consultant whose clients included leaders of all types of institutions: clergy, CEOs, military, university professors, and elected officials. 

Freidman thought that the most important characteristics for leaders was not expertise in techniques or data analysis, but rather the leader's own "presence". 

Friedman did not think a good leader was someone who "brought people together". Or someone who "felt your pain". Or strove for "consensus".

Drawing from systems theory, Friedman thought that a leader's own functioning would support attainment of goals for an organization (regardless of type) rather than attempting to make the broadest number of people happy.

He said a good leader was one that challenged others to grow, take responsibility for themselves, and be creative and imaginative --- in short, to become better leaders themselves.

How does a good leader do this? Friedman's view was as follows: 

A good leader is self-differentiated, in that the leader has a clear set of values and goals, and is willing to take a stand and define themselves based on those values and goals. The leader will say "this is what I stand for" based on their own hard won understanding of themselves. They will not test the winds or rely on polls to determine their policies or vision.

Because the leader is self-differentiated, and does not need the approval or acceptance of others, the leader is able to stay connected and in relationships with people who disagree with the leader. The leader will not "circle the wagons" around their own party or inner circle. They can exchange views with their political opposites without resort to personal attacks.

This permits the leader to maintain a non-anxious presence, even in the midst of anxiety and turmoil. The leader is able to continue to relate to others while maintining their own sense of direction and values. The leader is more likely to ask questions than dictate advice. And in the face of an anxious public climate, will not "blow with the wind" but will follow their values and goals.

As a result, the leader is non-reactive, and maintiains their sense of self even in the face of challenges and attacks. A poor leader will respond to attack by interfering or attempting to regulate the relationships of others, continually try to coerce others to their own point of view, and, as indicated above, will be unable to relate to people with whom they disagree. 

It follows, according to Friedman, that a good leader can therefore persist in the face of sabotage. Leading always results in resistance, and resistance, rather than being a negative, is a natural response to a leader's success. A good leader knows that when things change they usually get worse before they get better. And a good leader will sacrifice being liked or popular in the short term to achieve their goals in the long term.

The above list is a pretty tall order. Friedman once said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that even the best leaders probably only exhibit these characteristics 70% of the time.

But the assumption is that a leader of this type would challenge citizens to become more mature, more self-differentiated, more responsible for their own lives, and more likely to creatively take on challenges.  

As a work colleague from the UK noted to me "The US doesn't really have its 'A players' running this year, does it?". I guess its not surprising that so many people are describing their choices as "Anyone but A" or "Never B". 

Which candidates running today best fit this model of leadership? Frankly, I don't know. They are all certainly below 70%. 

When I vote this year, while certainly not ignoring the political views of the candidates, I am going to use this as a guide.

This year, all bets are off (except the four bets I already lost) 

*for further reading check out Friedman's book Failure of Nerve, which this blog post draws from.