Anyone experiencing the current political climate might easily conclude that our system of governing is either severely dysfunctional, even broken.
The two major political parties are deadlocked, ideologically bound, and controlled by enormous financial and special interests. American society is sharply divided — almost evenly split along enduring regional and political fault lines. The split is enabled and provoked by a media complex that thrives on divisiveness and is obsessed with ratings, gaffes, political spin, and sensational headlines and images. Meanwhile, the electorate is being bombarded by the 24-hour news cycle.
What psychological forces are at work here? What can modern politicians learn from a deeper understanding of leadership?
From a psychological perspective, a main underlying force at play in this political circus is anxiety. People feel legitimately afraid, given the specter of economic collapse, demographic shifts, global unrest, the existential threat of terrorism, and a general sense of uncertainty that makes the problems worse. A prevailing sentiment is that jobs will somehow be restored, and hiring will begin again, when business leaders feel greater “certainty.”
In the face of such strong and often unacknowledged feelings, our natural psychological defense is to split the world into good and bad, projecting all that is bad onto some malevolent “other” (depending on one’s political orientation, this could include banks, corporations, immigrants, Obamacare or any number of other issues). This, at least in the mind, restores order and a greater sense of certainty.
I believe this dynamic underlies the emergence on the right of the Tea Party, the disappearance of the GOP moderate, any attempts to compromise, the demonization of government, and the desire to return to the perceived purity and infallibility of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. On the left, “political correctness” and the various anti-corporate “occupy” movements represent some of the same reactive manifestations.
The current presidential election is unfolding according to many of these themes.
President Obama, who swept into office in 2008 fueled by youthful energy, inspiration, and the promise of “hope and change,” quickly discovered the harsh realities of governing in a downward economy, and with a mobilized and determined opposition. His re-election campaign is now struggling to re-ignite the same energetic base, while focusing on the more immediate and pressing concern of creating jobs.
As the challenger, former governor Mitt Romney presents himself as an ideal problem-solving manager, based on his great success in the business world as a consultant and private equity CEO. However, Romney is also discovering the challenges of being a pragmatist in a more ideologically driven and emotionally charged opposition party.
In reality, the election will most likely be decided in the center, and it will hinge on which candidate appeals more to independent, centrist voters.
Beyond who wins, a larger question is: what kind of leader is appropriate to these times?
My own research on managers and leaders is based on the idea of the “good enough” manager who can thrive in such turbulent times, and not resort to “illusions of certainty” where they do not exist.
I found that the best managers are seen by their employees as teachers and mentors, relationship builders, and models of integrity, while the worst supervisors are described as over-controlling micro-managers who take credit for others’ accomplishments and blame others for their own mistakes.
As described in my book, “The Good Enough Manager: The Making of a GEM,” the good enough managers demonstrate:
a fairly consistent repertoire of behaviors that are centered on the role of a manager as a teacher and mentor who develops an open, supportive, yet accountable, relationship with his employees. These managers promote autonomy within clear and well-communicated performance expectations and provide clear and helpful feedback on performance. They are aware of what is happening within themselves and their employees and do not try to control or micro-manage every aspect of a situation, but are ready to step in when necessary. They engender trust and respect through their actions and interactions. They are emotionally authentic, tolerant of uncertainty, adaptive to change, and accepting of their own limitations and imperfections in the face of constant change. They encourage creative thinking and learning from inevitable mistakes. They are perceived as fair and honest in their dealings with others and remain a touchstone for their employees, long after the formal reporting relationship ends.
Whichever candidate — Obama or Romney — prevails in November, he can learn something from these GEMs. And this education will be critical, because the next President will be plunged into further uncertainty and complexity in the nation and the world. Whether it’s finding new ways to create millions of jobs, reduce the budget deficit in an equitable way, or calm a volatile and angry Middle East, adaptive change will be an executive prerequisite.
And, although they propose very different political agendas and policies, and come from vastly different backgrounds, these two Harvard-educated men share some things in common.
Both are emotionally reticent by nature, and their primary strengths — Obama’s cerebral intelligence and cool head under pressure, and Romney’s managerial efficiency and business expertise — are also the source of their perceived weaknesses. Romney needs to become (or at least be seen as) more authentic and comfortable in his own skin; Obama’s supporters (and some independent voters) want to see more fire and less professorial aloofness in the President.
People yearn for humanity and engagement in their leaders.
Think of the good will expressed toward Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — both flawed leaders who were held in esteem by many, even those of opposing political views. Each had the ability to show empathy, and each was emotionally attuned to people and their concerns, as well as the larger cultural currents. Each used self-deprecating humor to express humility and effectively communicate his vision. And each (whether you believed them or not) used the language of fair play, trust, teamwork and “we are in this together” to convey national problems and solutions — much the way a GEM does in business.
It is often said that leaders get too much credit or blame for events that are beyond their immediate control. Perhaps, given the complexity of the times, we need to focus less on finding a superman or woman who will solve all problems and bring certainty. Perhaps a GEM is just what we need in the White House.
Aaron Nurick is professor of Management at Bentley University.