I work to keep politics out of these Leading Thoughts. Those of you who have been reading these through the years know this. If I refer to a political speech, it is only to talk about speech itself, not politics. If I mention a politician, it is to illustrate a principle of leadership, not to extol the politician. Yet we are all going to be leading in a politically charged environment in the coming years. I want to offer some principles that may help you do this successfully.
- Do Not Hide. A leader wants to be seen as and wants to actually be someone who is aware of the world, knowledgeable, and rooted in reality. When this is the truth of a leader’s life, it gives them greater heft, command, and influence. So don’t hide from what is going on. Let your people know that you keep up with the news and that you have opinions. Let them know you are moved by the headlines. Don’t hide. Don’t put your head in the sand.
- Reflect Compassion. Without turning your firm into a dangerous political echo chamber, you can simply express compassion for what people are experiencing given what is happening in the world. The leader who tells his Black team members that it must have been hard to watch the video of George Floyd dying or who tells the women on his team that the #MeToo themes in our culture must be hopeful and hard all at the same time is both caring for souls and leading well. People want to know that those who lead them in every arena get what they are going through. This is as true in business as it is in national leadership.
- Define the Boundaries. People are going to talk politics. Let them. Just define where it can happen in your firm. I know a company that has a separate break room from the main one in which those who want to peacefully and respectfully talk politics over lunch can do so. Those who don’t can simply stay away. This same firm asks its workers not to talk politics during work hours other than at lunch. This assures that no one is being picked on, productivity isn’t suffering due to arguments or ill-feeling in a department. A very wise approach. Set the boundaries. Set the example.
- Make Differences a Plus. A wise CEO I know does not allow much political discussion during the work day, but she does extol the political differences in the firm as a positive of her organization’s culture. She’ll get up and make company-wide speeches saying, “I love that Tom is the Democratic Chair for this county, and that Sara is the state coordinator for the Libertarian party. All have a place here. All contribute. It is because we are not robots here at Smith Company. We are leaders and culture changers. I’m proud of you.” And Tom and Sara leave the room with arms around each other and everyone respects their company even more. This is what you want. This is how to create a vital culture of varied texture.
- Stand Guard. Some of the most powerful words a leader can speak when something politically explosive has happened in the firm is, “We aren’t having that here!” They aren’t easy words to speak, but they define the lines, establish authority, and create peace. Everyone knows what is expected and where the lines are. They also know that they are protected. Strong leadership will make sure of it.