I view America like this: 70 to 80 percent [are] pretty reasonable people that truthfully, if they sat down, even on contentious issues, would get along. And the other 20 percent of the country run it. " -- Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
On the heels of President Obama's and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's on-going food fight, Hillary Clinton's deleted emails and foreign contributions to her foundation, more shootings in Ferguson, and Congressional gridlock over budgets -- we will hire a new President next year.
Amid rising polarization, our recent hires have struggled: President Obama's 2014 job approval averaged 42.6 percent (Gallup). President Bush averaged 37 percent his second term. Congress's 2014 approval averaged a historic low of 15 percent and Americans now rank government as our number one problem -- even surpassing the economy.
In fact, polarization, gridlock, and the growing influence of campaign money have cast a negative light on democracy around the world. Thomas Friedman laments that starting in 2006, the number of democracies around the world began to decline. He quotes Stanford Professor Larry Diamond: "The world takes note of all this. Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure."
Here is the rub: We get the leadership we select. If we want better leaders we must upgrade our selection criteria. Jim Collins, Good to Great, found that great organizations start with the question WHO? Who are the right leaders to navigate change? Interestingly, collaborative leadership, building strong teams and change leadership are three of the top five competencies identified for future corporate leaders. Once you have the right WHO, those leaders work to answer the WHAT -- direction, strategies, policies.
In recent years, we have obsessed over the ideological beliefs of our candidates -- the WHAT -- with too little attention to their leadership skills. Talk radio, cable news, and blogs have bombarded us with partisan ideology, teaching us to exaggerate our differences. Those self-identifying as ideologically extreme has increased from 29 percent (1970s) to 49 percent today. Those with highly negative views of the opposition has doubled since 1994. The elephant in the living room: polarization is ruling us and unless we change, the chasm will grow and the words rebellion, secession and civil disobedience will become acts.
We must choose. Do we support candidates who rigidly toe a narrow party line of WHAT issues where each side rallies their base and funds campaigns by demonizing the other side? The result: a President beholden to a narrow majority and a large belligerent minority committed to undo any change. Example: the Affordable Care Act teetering in limbo five years later.
Our government resembles two parents fighting through a contentious divorce -- each attempting to win over the kids. Eventually it is destructive for everyone and trust evaporates. Today only 13 percent trust the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time, down from 68 percent in the 1960s. Political leaders who cultivate division for political gain fail the test of leadership.
We need more than a President devoted to winning the fight; we need to hire a leader committed and able to serve the whole country -- not just narrow, partisan, moneyed stakeholders. Interestingly integrity in the original Latin meant keeping all the parties whole. Our next leader will bring important views on immigration, taxes and the role of government; but leading with that kind of integrity must trump ideology. Three selection criteria stand out:
First, hire a leader whose defining vision and animating purpose is to restore the relational bonds of this great nation. I call it Relational Leadership and it values our collective marriage as Americans over any particular ideology. It means valuing a "good" solution broadly supported, over a narrow "pure" solution that feeds gridlock and division. At times, it requires embracing the opposition and rejecting loyal, moneyed supporters. It sees collaboration not as compromising one's principles, but as the central leadership principle of diverse democracy.
Second, find a bridge-builder not a contempt-monger. Dr. John Gottman the famous relationship guru (90 percent accurate in predicting which couples remain together 15 years later) fingers contempt as the emotion most lethal to relationships -- speaking from a higher level while attempting to push another to a lower level. Elitism, the weapon of choice for contempt-based politics eventually wounds and fractures beyond repair.
Third, find a master of influence and transparency not authority and control. Power corrupts. Force is sometimes required but habitually, it extracts a price that democracies cannot afford. "My way or the highway" now crowds our roadways with those exiting participative democracy. 2014 voter turnout was 36 percent - lowest in 72 years. Defection from political parties doubled in the past 50 years. Today we require leadership that re-engages citizens and re-energizes democracy.
This country is starved for leadership that will end manufactured polarization. Otherwise, we will be paddled back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball by narrow majorities and hostile minorities. Starting in the primaries, vote for leadership that unites over partisanship that serially divides. Whatever your crucial issues (government's role, income inequality) - they cry for true leadership.
Here's the deal: democracy is a relational form of government. True Relational Leadership aspires to navigate this country to its unifying destiny not its leaders' polarizing re-election. Hiring our next leader starts with selecting a WHO that will lead us together to WHAT.