A crucial leadership challenge after the US Presidential Election
So far, there have been two main storylines emanating from US President Barack Obama’s surprisingly comfortable re-election on November 6.
The first is that President Obama won not so much because of his policies but because of organization and demographics, with his highly functioning “ground game” galvanizing a broad coalition of “diverse” Americans to come out to vote for their multicultural leader.
The second is that the Republicans failed to recognize and embrace this social and demographic change and must now revamp their party’s focus and platform to be able to come back in from the electoral wilderness in two years time.
But there is a third narrative that has not been explored so much as yet and it relates to this blogger’s personal diversity journey.
I grew up as an Orthodox Jewish grandchild of Eastern European immigrants in a segregated England where a prominent politician of the day, Enoch Powell, gave a dire warning in 1968 about the extreme dangers of new waves of immigration in what is widely known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech.
I was always an outsider at school and beyond where I was teased, bullied and even spat at. There was covert and not-so-covert anti-Semitism even at the University of Oxford where I studied French.
While I was a student, I began spending time in the USA where I had a very different experience of diversity and inclusion.
Suddenly, I became a white, straight male of European origin with two degrees from Oxford. I could seemingly go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted I do. No one would ask me why I was in the lobby of the Four Seasons at 3.00 am or follow me around Nordstrom’s as a potential shoplifter. I was now part of a privileged, elite club that I never knew existed.
This lasted until September 11, 2001 when everything changed for the USA, for the world and for me. People started noticing the Lebanese and Persian heritage in my facial features and I was subject to repeated “random” checks in the security lines at the airport. I was now a suspected Middle Eastern terrorist.
These “random” security checks continue to this day and my main conclusion is that I cannot really control how others see and relate to me (other than making sure I do not stand near the pilots’ cabin just after takeoff or just before landing).
But I can control how I see and relate to the world around me and, more importantly, I firmly believe that the whole question of diversity and inclusion needs to involve everyone: traditionally marginalized minorities; privileged majorities, who may be losing some of their long-held power and influence; and even wrongly suspected citizens!
Which brings me back to the leadership lessons from the US presidential election results.
President Obama did very well amongst less empowered groups, such as Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and youth. And he easily won the women’s vote 55-44.
But he lost the votes of white males – the traditional bastions of power in this country – by 45-52. And quite a few of them seem to be very angry with him.
Some white women too, as was evidenced by the comments of Denise Helms in Sacramento, who got fired for posting on her Facebook page: “Another 4 years of this n****r. Maybe he will get assassinated this term.”
The key to this challenge but also to the solution may lie in looking more closely at another previously “angry white male”: Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Before Hurricane Sandy, Governor Christie was one of the president’s most vocal critics: “He’s like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership, and he just can’t find it.”
After President Obama personally met with Governor Christie and helped him and the beleaguered residents of New Jersey in the aftermath of the storm, Governor Christie actually hugged him and said “I just want to thank him for his extraordinary leadership and participation.”
What caused this drastic turnaround?
President Obama putting aside any prejudices, preconceptions or personal hurt he may have had in relation to a bitter political foe – and vice versa – and meeting Governor Christie literally where he was, showing genuine concern and concrete support in a time of great need and most importantly, getting beyond the stereotypes to get to know him and engage with him on a deep, personal level.
This stark lesson is a very clear example for all current and future leaders in how to engage with the “enemy”: do your own personal work; be sincere about bridging differences; and find a way to meet with your foes on common ground and explore new paths of genuine communication, connection and trust-building.
In the words of the 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field; I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”