• Nonpartisan Leadership in a Politically Polarized World

    Here we are, one week past a particularly difficult election season, with some races still unresolved.

    Most of the readers of this blog are people who hold governmental positions that require non-partisanship behavior. Others are people who got where they are, at least in part, due to their affiliation with one political party. Still others might be might be nonprofit leaders whose primary allegiance might be to a specific mission or particular client group, independent of political affiliation.

    We are all in public service. We are all operating in a politically polarized country. We are all regaining our balance after an election that revealed deep divisions and generates passionate discussion.

    How does a non-partisan leader move through this with integrity? Given that any response could present a target for criticism, the temptation might be to lay low and stay quiet. Tempting…but not effective in terms of addressing distress from any source, healing the divisions among us, and figuring out a new way forward together.

    One of the better ideas generated this week comes from the author Elizabeth Gilbert. She suggests we reflect and respond to the question “How do I want to be in this situation?” None of us can fully control the situation, but all of us can make choices about how we respond.

    We can create opportunities to have these discussions in the workplace, first taking care to ensure that participants are willing to model mutual respect and held accountable for doing so. This is also a good time for any organization or community to restate and reaffirm its values; they may well be put to the test later on.

    As for me – today – how I choose to respond is to listen deeply, with patience, to everyone.  Not just even when I disagree with their votes, but especially when I disagree.

    How do you want to be in this situation?

    Margaret Henderson joined the School of Government in 1999. As director of the Public Intersection Project, she researches and communicates strategies that strengthen cross-sector working relationships for more effective public problem-solving. Her current responsibilities also include teaching in the School’s MPA program.

    2 thoughts on “Nonpartisan Leadership in a Politically Polarized World”

    • John Mark Wilson says:

      I think this is an important piece. Recently, I took part in a closed-door discussion among leaders whose professional ethics demand non-partisanship. Quickly, it became apparent who was on what side of the partisan divide. By the end of the discussion, it became apparent that the discussion was not about learning, but about winning an argument. All the while, the problem we were discussing wasn’t any closer to being solved.

      I love the test: “How do I want to be in this situation?”

      • Ah, yes. We have likely all witnessed instances when the goal of solving the problem at hand became supplanted by winning the power struggle in the room at the time. If the combatants aren’t deeply entrenched in the power struggle, it can sometimes be interrupted by naming the dynamic at play. I had plenty of practice doing this the wrong way in my teenage arguments with my parents.

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