What should we think about the results of the 2012 elections? One option is to question our automatic ways of judging the results. I question my automatic assessments because I've grown tired of them. I spent enough time feeling depressed, frustrated and angry during the Bush years, during the impeachment period of the Clinton years, and during the entirety of the Reagan era that I came to realize these weren't especially useful emotions for me.
Plus, as a coach I've seen how the way we frame things can either trap us or free us. When we ask different questions we get different answers. Coaching is partly about meta-cognition - thinking about how we are thinking. Is it possible that by thinking of the elections in a different way we might end up doing more useful things towards goals we find important?
Let's apply a few coaching questions to how we look at the midterm elections. (I write this as a liberal Democrat, but the questions operate in the same way regardless of one's political view.)
"Who knows if it's good or bad?" This question comes from a number of ancient fables and has been cited by authors ranging from Barbara Sher to Srikumar Rao. The idea is that when we make early assessments, whether positive or negative, we get trapped. Once we determine the storyline, we stop seeing the details that don't support that story. If we defer the process of judgment, we might open ourselves to new opportunities.
Is it possible that the results of the election are bad? Sure. Is it possible that the results might be good? Maybe, given that there are unintended consequences to everything. For instance, now that the Republicans control the House, they will have to propose specific legislation rather than talk in generalities. Their actions might turn off the public, or their coalition might fracture, or they might decide to compromise to get things done. We don't know yet.
"What's the opportunity?" Failure sometimes brings opportunity. If it's clear that a particular path is not working, you are free to try alternate paths. President Obama faces a daunting set of power dynamics, but he and the Democrats have choices about how to address them. He can go right or left; he can keep trying for bipartisanship or give up on it completely; he can focus on new legislation or focus on holding onto what he's already achieved.
It's counterintuitive that losing 60 seats might be present new opportunities, but it's possible. President Clinton, elected in 1992, only fully stepped into his power in 1994 when Newt Gingrich took over the House and, in an intended show of force, tried to shut down the government. Two years later Clinton sailed to reelection.
"What's the systems view?" Executive coaches always look at the system as well as the individual because we know that even the most competent and motivated leaders cannot progress without systemic support.
In a systems perspective, we look at other factors that contribute to results. This includes political players, including the Republican and Democratic parties, the Tea Party movement, unions, PACs and other moneyed entities that affect the political process. In a systems view we would also look at non-political factors that affect politics: the economy; changing demographics; voter allegiance by age, gender and ethnicity; educational changes (such as the increasing percentage of the population that is receiving higher education); and technology. For instance, I think that technology is exercising a significant effect on voting, primarily by making the public's attention span even shorter.
Thinking about these factors might determine what next steps will be most useful. Is it working on voter registration? Teaching civics in junior high school? Or creating a cool iPhone app to educate voters about the federal budgeting process? I don't know. But these are questions worth exploring.
"What's in your control? What's not in your control?" Politics often feels out of our control because we understandably focus on the macro level - who has been elected to which office, what people on television are saying, what pieces of legislation get passed or blocked. But ultimately our ability to act is at the micro level.
Voting is not the only way to have an impact. What kinds of things can you do at the local, state, national or international level? If you admitted that some things are in your control, what would you do next?
"What got you here won't get you there. So how do you need to grow?" The first line is the title of Marshall Goldsmith's latest book. It's a useful summary about how life actually happens. You might be the most brilliant person in the world, but you should expect as you progress in life and work to find yourself in situations where the approach you've taken before is not relevant to new challenges.
I personally believe that Barack Obama is pretty darn competent, and I like the people in his cabinet (especially Hillary). I also think that many people in Congress are pretty smart. That said, I think that they are at a new frontier and relying on old ways of doing things is not likely to work. So what needs to change? What new skills need to be developed? What do they -- and we -- need to learn? What do we need to unlearn?
Despairing, complaining and accusing don't accomplish much. Finding a way forward starts with interrogating how we are actually thinking about things. If we don't like the answers we get, we should find some new questions.
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