“Do they really in their heart feel like you’re doing everything you can to protect their lives?”
These are the words of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick when he challenged President Obama during last week’s Town Hall Meeting. The exchange has been well publicized so I won’t repeat it here.
As I listened, it occurred to me how difficult it is for any leader to convey genuine care and meaningful support while calling for improvement. Political agendas aside, why is it that from one point of view the President’s words sounded balanced, fair, and even inspired, while from another point of view they came across as wholly inauthentic? What would our nation’s leader have had to do in order for his audience to feel genuine care and at the same time hear the call to improve?
Every institutional leader faces this challenge at one time or another. Sean O’Keefe faced it when he accepted the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s findings that numerous “hardware, process, and human failures” had caused the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s seven-member crew. Leaders at every level face this challenge. A colleague of mine faced it when he discussed numerous, repeated invoicing errors at his company’s town hall meeting. Even though he framed it as a systemic issue, one that touched every department, people in the accounting department who were deeply involved felt responsible. And so the words felt uncaring and wrapped in blame: How could they not?
When people are part of a broken system, what does it take for them to feel genuine care and at the same time hear the call to improve?
1. Protect individuals, challenge the system
It’s pretty hard to suspend judgement when live streaming video shows one human being shooting another. In organizations it is hard to suspend judgement when a supervisor tells a worker to shortcut a procedure, or a worker removes a guard from a piece of equipment. But it is a leaders’ duty to protect individuals from judgement until the situation is fully understood. The leader’s job is to protect individual rights while simultaneously understanding systemic issues and challenging systems that are flawed.
2. Ask “How can I help?”
In his town hall challenge, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick acknowledged President Obama’s words of support for police. What he questioned was their impact. What did people feel in their hearts? It takes more than words in order for people to feel genuine care: it takes a willingness to act. In my personal experience, when I am angry or feeling misunderstood, I love it when a colleague says: “How can I help?” The simplest question generates empathy, meaningful action, and immediately diffuses a situation.
3. Enlist key leaders
When Sean O’Keefe received the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, he had options. He could have challenged the findings. He could have defended NASA’s culture, which the Board had found to be “broken.” Instead he not only embraced the findings himself, he enlisted the leaders within his organization who embraced the findings with him. It’s one thing for the head of an organization to call for change. It’s another thing when that call is answered by other influential people who are closer to the issues.
The hard thing to understand is that serious organizational issues are almost never simple and one-sided. Bias is destructive and it flows in both directions on most issues. Our country was founded on the notion of justice for all; that applies to citizens and to police officers alike. The role of leadership becomes paramount when we face these kinds of issues, whether in government or in any other organization. We need leaders who can see clearly without bias, of any kind, and make decisions that are based on the common good.