Will a Real Leader Please Stand Up?

06/29/2016 02:36 pm ET

Democrats and Republicans Failing to Unite Due to Lack of Strong Leadership Presence 

Highly engaged US voters are not only frustrated at Washington, they are more fearful and angry at the other party than they have been in decades. Fear and distrust among voters is now evident around the world. The Brexit decision to leave the EU has divided neighbor against neighbor, and emotions grow stronger as the enormity of the consequences become clear.

Here in the US, the cause of rancor among voters is not, at its core, a simple disagreement with the other parties' proposals.  A majority of voters have deeply negative feelings about the personal qualities of leaders and candidates on the opposite side. While it would be easy to blame this on an increasingly partisan media or the natural human tendency to gravitate toward those who agree with us, the real culpability lies with Democrat and Republican party elites who are failing to unite the country.  

A recent Pew Research Center study on partisanship and party animosity yields (not surprisingly) that animosity between voters in two parties is more intense and negative than over the last quarter of a century. This failure to find common ground is related to a lack of leadership qualities such as humility. Humility, at its core, is respect for others as people and curiosity about their ideas. Leaders who are able to bring people together in difficult times do so in large part by first acknowledging that they don't have all the answers.

Our research shows that leaders are generally regarded as lacking many social-emotional qualities, which are critical to inspiring people to overcome personal differences and embrace a common purpose. Social-emotional qualities are essential to a leader's ability to win trust, build credibility, and get things done. Many of the qualities of executive presence, broadly defined as character, substance and style, are lacking among our current political leadership, whether in Washington or on the presidential campaign trail.  

In addition to humility, qualities including authenticity, integrity, and concern are ones we know that people long to see in their leaders.  Voters, and employees, make decisions about whether they trust and want to follow a leader based on perceptions of their behaviors and actions. When leaders fail to project these qualities, people lose faith and disengage, or worse, fight among themselves. Interestingly, many leaders have good intentions but are unaware of the damaging effect of their actions on an organization, or in this case, the country.

Another quality that is absent in today’s leadership is resonance - the ability to read a situation. Party leaders in Europe and around the world were surprised by the Brexit vote, and here in the US, by the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, because they fell out of touch with the thoughts and emotions of the electorate.  Without resonance, leadership is destined to miss or ignore the concerns and motivations of those they lead.

Inclusiveness (the ability to get people around the table working together) is another quality that is overwhelmingly absent from politics today.  For the last decade or more, party leaders have met less and less often in private to resolve differences.  This will only change when they are forced either by the electorate, or other pressures, to embrace positive conflict (a quality of assertiveness) and make it okay to disagree without being disagreeable. 

In business, leaders who do not develop these qualities are destined to fail. They are unable to engage, align, and inspire others.  Their teams can't sort through challenges and overcome differences. In the political realm, it fosters a toxic environment that threatens the America we know and love, one that has always come together for the good of the whole. Unless our leadership adopts more of the positive aspects of leader presence, the country will remain stuck in acrimonious and unproductive debate, focused on the politics of personality, not policy.

The Pew Study reported that negative feelings about the other party are more powerful than the positive feelings voters have about their own party. This level of negativity can destroy a company, and would not long be tolerated by employees, shareholders, or a board of directors. The question is, will the shareholders of the country (voters) insist on a different kind of leadership?

Going forward, economic uncertainty and global instability will further ratchet up pressure on US and world leaders. Terrorist attacks including the tragic shooting in Orlando and the horrific attack on Istanbul Airport will feed voter animosity, and fuel beliefs that the opposing party's leaders are uncaring and incompetent.  It's on leaders in both parties to raise their game, or watch as this negativity tears at the very fabric of our nation. 

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