Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Annie McKee Headshot

Toxic Politics

Posted: Updated:

When it comes to leadership, emotions matter. Brain research has established that the way we feel has enormous influence over our cognitive functioning and also on our behavior. Studies show that the best leaders use their own and others' emotions to create resonance -- a condition in an organization, community, or even a family that helps people to feel optimistic, excited, and committed to work together to realize a shared dream.

Leaders who focus on negativity, anger and polarizing people are destructive and dangerous. They're toxic. While they often attain short-term goals, in the end they almost always fail. And they take a lot of people with them. What's worse, though, is that some of these dissonant leaders actually succeed, for a time. They use hatred and bigotry to fire people up. They unite by making people believe that they are in danger. They inspire by creating an extreme us-them scenario and by tapping into people's most primitive fears.

Given the state of our economy, humanity and the planet, we can't afford leaders who will fail in the long term. And we definitely can't tolerate leaders who unite their followers around ideologies based in self-righteousness and hatred. The Republican candidates are heading in this direction. In fact, they are already there.

They would disagree, naturally, and they'd probably argue that they have been good leaders. Personally, I don't agree that Mitt Romney was a great business leader or that Rick Santorum was a great senator. Both were divisive and single-minded in the pursuit of agendas that suited personal beliefs and goals.

Regardless of the past, what matters is what the candidates are doing now. They are the butt of jokes and they've embarrassed us as a nation. They're out of touch and focused on the very issues that do divide and polarize. Examples go on and on... "black--or blah--people"; the birth control "discussion" ; the Rombo ad; "Satan is ruining American institutions"; accusations of attacks on religious liberty. I don't buy the argument that they are "preparing" for the national campaign by fighting dirty like this. That's simply a justification for using negative emotions to pit people against one another.

The Republican candidates are tapping into destructive emotions in attempts to unite people. It's not a new approach, we've seen it before in both parties. But this campaign is a new low. Dissonance doesn't help leaders or followers, it inhibits our ability to think. By tapping into fears about foreign threats, continued panic over painfully high (though decreasing) rates of unemployment, and our divisions over social and civil rights as a nation, neurological activity is triggered that causes us individually and collectively to hunker down. In this state we focus on threats as opposed to creative solutions to the domestic and international crises we face.

Recounting the idiocy we've seen in this campaign gives it power. We don't need any more dissonance or destructive emotions. We need leaders who will unite us around real solutions and a vision of a future that is better for everyone. We need leaders who create resonance. That's because when we experience positive emotions , when we feel hopeful and empowered, we are more creative, more resourceful, and better able to solve problems. The best leaders know this and they tap into our primal and powerful desire to be connected, to work together, and to move to a better future. Of course, these resonant leaders are also smart: they see patterns in chaos and paths amidst confusion.

If the GOP is hoping to put forth that kind of leader, they better start again. As a Democrat, I could sit back with a big smile on my face and wait for November. It's tempting. But I can't do that. I dedicate my life to the study of leadership and I am a committed and involved citizen. We desperately need great leaders today, in politics, in business, in all sectors across the world.

Leadership is an art and science that involves the cognitive and emotional centers of our brains. The resonant ones are reasonable and realistic, while also connecting us to our highest ideals. In business, these leaders get results. In communities, these leaders help us to overcome our most serious problems and more -- they help us to believe in ourselves and in our power to change the world for better -- and then support and leverage resources thoughtfully and strategically to move dreams from hope to reality.

Ok, so he's not perfect. But, I have high hopes for President Obama's second term, and he can't do it alone. He will need -- I should say we will need -- a political environment that is respectful and willing to work together. Lord knows we haven't got that now, and this campaign is taking us down a path that will lead to a viciousness that will last long after this election is over.

But just letting it play out isn't a good idea. While we can't all take big actions like Howard Schulz's Create Jobs for USA, or contribute a million dollars to a super PAC the way Bill Maher did, we can do something. We can start small: talk with friends about the kind of leaders you want in America. For God's sake, register to vote if you haven't. Take the next crop of 18-year-olds to register. Talk to young people about what it really means to be a great leader -- and how they can lead, no matter what they do in life. Join our nation's political discussion with answers and ideas about the future. Speak up against negative ads, ugly campaign tactics and the like.

Tell your leaders -- Democrat and Republican alike -- that you don't want this awful, negative discourse anymore. I'm pretty sure that most of us are tired of all the dissonance and hatred -and we know it doesn't help, anyway. Let's take a cue from what brain science tells us and simply not tolerate this attack on our emotions, reason and hopes and put an end to toxic politics.

Register To Vote