By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
America has been preoccupied with the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Aside from the obvious political ramifications, the situation can be used as a case study of today’s leadership in many settings. No one doubts that volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) leads to unparalleled transparency. Social media reports hourly and even minute-by-minute developments in this impeachment case. Political partisanship persists as “landslide counties” (where a political party has over 60 percent of the vote) actually require politicians to be extremely partisan and not necessarily cooperative. Transparency and this partisanship lead to ever-more public and volatile disagreements.
While these transparent and partisan conditions foster kabuki impeachment theater, they also resemble the setting faced by leaders in nearly every organization. So as an observer of leadership, I offer leaders the following lessons to learn from this traumatic impeachment process.
1. Your personal leadership brand matters.
Leaders create a personal brand that shapes what they are known for by others and affects how others respond to them. Some brand Trump as a narcissist, bully, and fraud; others brand him as an energizer, innovator, and achiever. These biases shape how his actions are interpreted. This strong personal brand causes leadership jeopardy where the answer about quality of leadership is either negative or positive depending on the brand bias. In a few cases, advocates and opponents even pre-prepare their responses before an event: “I loathe or love Donald Trump because (fill in the bank).” This jeopardy-like answer before the event reinforces biases.
As a leader, you must recognize the impact of a personal brand then intentionally act to create and reinforce your desired brand. These actions come from managing your calendar and attention: “Where do you spend your time?” “What issues do you prioritize?” “How do you allocate resources?” “How do you make decisions?” “Whom do you spend time with?” “What questions do you ask?” A leadership brand filters how others see you and creates goodwill (or enmity) among those who follow you.
2. Process matters.
People who disagree on an agenda may still agree on fairness in the process. Process issues have become center stage for the impeachment fairness: Were both sides treated fairly? Was there a process that both sides can agree on or at least accept? Process fairness ensures that sides can disagree without being disagreeable. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wisely said at the impeachment trial: “It is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body. Those addressing the Senate should remember where they are.” This call for honorable process defines fairness.
For any leader, attention to process implies listening to and respecting alternative points-of-view from both those who support and those who do not support your perspective. Belittling, denigrating, or defaming others only reinforces a vicious and negative cycle (and leadership brand) where others will likely respond in kind (e.g., think John McCain and Mitt Romney whom President Trump denigrated and who subsequently challenged him in return). A leader must lead with long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and kindness. Giving negative feedback is appropriate at times, but doing so must be done in a context of psychological safety. Engaging in a participative and fair process does not discharge your responsibility to be accountable to make tough decisions, but it attends how you go about doing it.
3. Words matter.
Social media quickly and broadly leverages your words. A few decades ago, a company offered its sales representatives in northern Europe unique benefits (e.g., car allowance) that it did not offer to the rest of the sales representatives around the world, assuming that what was done in one setting would not likely be communicated to others. Today, that is simply not possible. Almost any (even minor) action quickly transmits broadly through social media. In the impeachment, a politician’s or potential witness’s even off-hand comment immediately goes viral. Even executive privilege can be penetrated through other disclosures. President Trump’s over 70 million twitter followers enable him to share directly his ideas. And news-hungry broadcasters quickly share even tidbits of information.
As a leader, you need to be careful about your words, sensing how others might interpret your words and assuming that even your seemingly private conversations could become public. Tempering your words requires some degree of cautious judgment about what words you use to share a message. Chief Justice Roberts’s comments (cited above) to limit hostile discourse is a wonderful example of using good words to share a tough message. At times, your followers want you to have clear and definitive answers. So be thoughtful about helping your employees see not only what you advocate but why. As others have prudently said, when your employees understand the why, they accept the what and how.
4. Divergence and convergence matter.
Surrounding yourself with only like-minded people is tempting and seemingly wise. We feel comfortable engaging with those who share our values and participate in similar actions. In some settings, this may make sense (e.g., hobbyists, family members, worshippers), but in other settings, great value comes from divergent thinking. In the impeachment, the media (e.g., Fox, CNN, MSNBC news stations) often have like-minded pundits who pile on shared beliefs. Each channel caters to their audience, which is good for TV ratings but not for navigating the benefits of learning from each other. Partisan divides persist when people surround themselves only with those whom like are like. A poignant example of personal relationships with public differences was when U.S. President Ronald Reagan was shot and in the hospital. Tip O’Neill, his primary political opponent, “entered Reagan’s hospital room ‘. . . and walked over to the bed and grasped both the president’s hands, and said, “God bless you, Mr. President.” The president still seemed groggy . . . with lots of tubes and needles running in and out of his body. But when he saw Tip, he lit up and gave the speaker a big smile, and said, “Thanks for coming, Tip.” Then, still holding one of the president’s hands, the speaker got down on his knees and said he would like to offer a prayer for the president, choosing the 23rd Psalm.’” (See https://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/chris-matthews-book-tip-and-the-gipper-when-politics-worked-097585.)
Leaders need to learn to navigate the paradox of divergence (diversity or differences) and convergence (inclusion or unity). Too much divergence leads to no shared progress; too much convergence leads to group think and lack of creativity. As a leader, spend time with those not like you, build personal relationships not tied to public positions, hold private conversations outside of the public scrutiny, and explore divergent thinking before converging.
The public spectacle of impeachment has enormous political consequences. But impeachment and other national political issues like Brexit (ironically, temporarily resolved on the same day), refugees, trade, sustainability, and corruption have enormous lessons for leaders anywhere.
What do you learn about leadership from the impeachment or another public political issue?