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The Either/Or Syndrome

We have become very polarized. Our country, as a nation, has become separated through divergent conversations, dialogues, and opinions more so than ever before. It seems to have been heading in that direction for some time, and the emergent participation in social media and less traditional news outlets has raised the volume on and exacerbated our differences. It’s actually gone beyond having different points of view ~ we have begun to dislike and isolate ourselves from those who disagree with us. We’ve become so divided that we’ve lost our ability to discuss, debate, and argue in a dignified way. It seems that we can no longer have differing points of view without it quickly spiraling into personal attacks and becoming offensive toward one another. I call this phenomenon “The Either/Or Syndrome.” How this translates as a practical matter is “it’s either my way (which is right), or it’s your way (which is wrong)” and there’s no room for anything else. We no longer look to find common ground and discover about what the other person’s thinking might be, and whether or not it has value for consideration. It is take it or leave it, and if you leave it, you’re an idiot and I’ll let you know that, too. We have become unsophisticated, awkward, mean, and sometimes vulgar with those whom we disagree. 

Disagreement and debate are at the foundation and traditions of our culture. It’s what has allowed this country to grow, thrive, and keep itself in check for centuries. Yet that is very quickly disintegrating right before our eyes. President Bill Clinton shared a snippet from a book he read called The Big Sort, in which he pointed to this dilemma for us as a nation. He says,

“I read a book a couple of years ago that I recommend to people all the time called The Big Sort by Bill Bishop who is a journalist and, as it happens, a pretty progressive Democrat from Austin, TX. And what provoked him to write this book was his neighborhood in Austin lost its only Republican neighbor. And he loved this guy. And he talked about how their kids played together, and they took walks together. And how much he learned from their arguments, because they didn’t see everything the same way and how much it meant to him to know there was somebody he liked and respected and cared for that he could actually have an honest discussion where neither one of them would be completely predictable. But, he said, I was the only one of our neighbors who was nice to him. Now in their neighborhood in the 2004 presidential election Senator Kerry defeated Pres Bush 3–1. So, the republican guy moves out and moves into another neighborhood in Austin, TX where President Bush defeated Senator Kerry 4–1. And Bishop said, you know both of our neighborhoods were poorer for that.

He pointed out that in 1976 when Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford had a razor thin election, which by the way ultimately culminated in a lifetime friendship between the two of them and lasted until President Ford passed away. But anyway, in that election ~ a 1% election ~ only 20% of America’s counties voted for one or the other of them by 20% or more. Which meant that in 1976, you could go into any coffee shop or hair salon or barber shop or bowling alley and have a conversation with people who didn’t necessarily disagree with you about what was going on in America.

By 2004, when President Bush won the closest re-election margin of any President since Woodrow Wilson in 1916, 48% of our counties voted for one or the other of them by more than 20%. That much movement. So, he said you know America’s making real progress, this Bishop guy said, we’re not as racist as we used to be, we’re not as sexist as we used to be, we’re not as homophobic as we used to be. The only bigotry we have left is that we just don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.” 

The link https://youtu.be/5rjOSfYc5yA

My guess is that you have experienced what Clinton is referring to. We don’t talk and discuss anymore. We speak and don’t listen. And somewhere in all that we miss the opportunity to discover our amazing ability to come to an agreement that’s workable for everyone. It’s as though we’ve taken on a childish style, “If I don’t get my way then I gotta make sure you don’t get yours.”  

Everyone is familiar with the biblical story of King Solomon and the two women who had a baby and couldn’t decide to whom the baby belonged. The King, in frustration, offered his solution and told them they would just split the baby in half and share it. It was his way of showing them the absurdity of not being able to work it out or come to some acceptable solution. It seems that we are unwilling to consider any alternative other than “I’m right.”

For us, the solution to this lives in our ability to have a conversation in which we consider the other’s point of view as valid. Not right or wrong, just valid. In fact, just as valid as our point of view. And from there to begin to see what’s possible in a dialogue focused on what’s possible as the end result. Right now, our elected officials sit at a cool 15% approval rating, mostly because they don’t seem to get anything done, and this is because they disagree and won’t have the tough discussions that need to be had to get to a place where they can agree. So, the conversation shuts down and, just like children, they take their marbles and go home. We can’t let it be resolved as Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort said, The only bigotry we have left is that we just don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.” It must start with each of us taking a stand to transform the conversation and return to civility.

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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Leadership – Why Not Give Them a “Free Fish”

As leaders it is our job to deliver value and make a difference in those things that matter. This requires focusing our time and energy on the things that will really move the dial forward. Equally important is that we don’t spend time on things that don’t make a difference and don’t really matter. This can be a challenge because most of the things that come at us in a day come with an apparent level of importance, indicating that they get dealt with immediately. However, my experience is that not all things that come to our attention deserve our time because working on them to resolve them will not make any real difference. Successful leaders have honed the ability to discern which things are going to make an impact and which things are comparatively trivial and, in some cases, irrelevant.

A few years back, I was in a meeting with the president of a company and her leadership team; we were working on designing a program to provide leadership development training for several levels of people just below the leadership team ~ their directors and managers. The team needed to make a decision, in which we could go one of two ways. They could have our firm provide the training as a combination of managers and directors in a group, or we could separate the directors from the managers so that the directors received one level of training (slightly more advanced), and managers would participate in a more basic program. Virtually all of the people in the room except for the president thought the two groups should be isolated and trained separately while keeping their titles distinct. The president disagreed saying, “Separating them will make no difference. They should all receive the same training and it will work just fine.” She viewed it as an opportunity for them to interact and relate, which she considered a positive. However, they didn’t come to a decision at that meeting as they were at a bit of a stalemate. I agreed to see if I could get it resolved offline within the week by having conversations with the individual stakeholders.

I spoke with almost all of the key leaders who were in the room and they all held to the position that the two trainings should be separate. When I went back to the president and told her that they felt pretty strongly about it, she smiled and said, “Then let them have it; they get to win this one. They’re wrong, but I’m not taking that one on.” I was surprised by her response because I knew she felt pretty strongly about her view. I asked, “Just like that, huh?” She responded, “Look, we get into these ‘little battles’ pretty regularly. This one isn’t worth fighting. Sometimes it’s best to let them win in a scuffle like this because it ultimately makes no difference. I choose my battles wisely and when I need to win the battle, I want to make sure it’s one worth fighting for. This one is not worth it, so this one is a free fish.* And it costs me nothing. Because, ultimately, the point is to get everyone trained, which as leaders will happen either way.” 

In this situation, the president of the company gave her team a “free fish.” They wanted to win the debate and she let them. This demonstrated to me that she was using her wisdom to determine where she was going to invest her time and energy. As leaders we are required to invest our time in a great many things and most of it isn’t leading, per se. I have seen the “free fish” technique work brilliantly with teams in negotiations and even at home. Try it out and see how it works.

*The reference about a free fish comes from the training of dolphins. They are very smart mammals, probably the most intelligent next to humans. They learn very quickly because they are rewarded with a fish when they do tricks. But dolphin trainers have an additional technique they call a “free fish.” Every so often, for no reason at all, they throw the dolphin a fish. The dolphins know that and pay close attention to the trainer at all times in the hopes they might get a spontaneous “free fish.”

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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You Can’t Transfer What You Don’t Have

Everybody’s heard the adage “Physician Heal Thyself.” It refers to the notion that when giving advice one must first have their actions match their speaking. Said another way, if you are going to dispense words of wisdom, then it is incumbent on you that you operate consistent with your counsel. When the speaking and behavior don’t match up, it’s called hypocrisy. It would be like an overweight doctor telling the patient to lose weight for their health, and then later that day seeing that same doctor driving through a fast food chain restaurant getting “super-sized.”   

Part of our work involves educating and developing competent managers to become leaders. We do so by distinguishing what leadership really is. Leadership is all about character and modeling that character in your actions. Leadership stands on four foundational factors. They are: integrity, authenticity, being committed to something bigger than oneself, and being “cause” in the matter.*

If you think about these four factors, you can easily see how each of these become pillars for being a leader. The first factor, integrity, is pretty obvious. Without it, nothing works. Integrity creates a foundation of reliability and trust. Second, authenticity has everything to do with being aware of who you hold yourself to be, i.e. walking the talk. To do that, you have to know your blind spots. Third, being committed to something bigger than yourself is fundamental to leadership because if you’re all about you, you’re not believing in and demonstrating anything that people will find themselves identifying with, and therefore will not follow. To be a leader requires followers. Last, and most challenging, is being “cause” in matter. This requires an existential leap of being the owner of, and taking responsibility for, things you probably did not do. Yet if you are “cause” in the matter, then you are willing to deal with it as though whatever happens is your personal responsibility.  Each of these are key components; leadership will not happen if any of those four is missing. Leadership depends on all four of those legs of character being solid and intact. 

I often see things that are inconsistent with the character of leadership. Here’s a recent example: The other night before the State of the Union Address I was scrolling Facebook, which I use for both entertainment and to stay connected with family and friends. As I was scrolling I saw the following post:

“State of the Union:  INAUTHENTICITY & NO INTEGRITY.

Be prepared to be bamboozled newly, America.”

At first I was amused that someone took the time to warn us all. Thank you, Chicken Little. But when I saw who posted it, I was somewhat taken aback because I know this person and know that this person teaches people about communication. They make their living teaching some of the same character values discussed above, and effective communication requires openness. This post did not reflect openness. In fact, it reflected a very narrow point of view that had been concluded before they heard a word of the State of the Union Address. Communication is a key factor in organizational effectiveness. Most people would agree the following things are critical:

  1. Walk into a situation with an open mind and with no conclusions made
  2. Fully listen to what the other person has to say
  3. Try not to prejudge the speaker

If you look at this post, it has none of those things. Yet the person who posted it would claim to be an expert on coaching in the area of communication. What I read was clearly the opposite of that and doesn’t represent what this person espouses. It struck me that if this person could be that blind to how inconsistent what they are posting on social media is with what they teach ~ and I consider this person a fairly aware person ~ the same must be true for others, including myself. Said simply, what this person posted and what they teach suddenly appeared as pure hypocrisy. They spoke their formed opinion and had decided it was the truth. They presented it as if it was the truth. And that is inconsistent with what I know about communication. I suppose we’re all guilty of that at some level. I chose not to add a comment to the Facebook post. I may contact the person directly to share my observation.

Here’s what I discovered for myself over the years in delivering transformational work in organizations: if you do not practice what you preach, if you do not walk the talk, there is no way you will be effective in delivering that character to other people. They will be able to see through the inauthenticity like reading a 10-cent novel and will know that this is only “do as I say, not as I do.” Nobody wants to sign up for getting conned at that level. Bottom line, if you’re going to preach it or teach it, start with what you’re going to do to demonstrate that for yourself and model it to others. Walk the Talk.

*Taken from Being a Leader and the Effective Exercise of Leadership – W. Erhard, M. Jensen

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com