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The Leaders We Need Now: Post-Election Reflections

Talk of the US presidential election is dominating many of our conversations at Next Step Partners. Like many others, we’ve been surprised by the depth of discontent, division and fear that this election has both laid bare and unleashed.

And Americans are not alone. Earlier this year, we saw similar upheavals in the UK with Brexit. In other parts of the world fears about economic dislocation and technological change, social transformation and immigration are spurring populist and xenophobic reactions.

We know from our work in leadership development that times of turmoil can create both casualties and opportunities. And visionary leaders can arise from unexpected situations and places.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

Our democracy relies on lots of people stepping up, speaking out and leading others. It goes well beyond the office of the President. Our clients are some of these current and future leaders, a group that includes CEOs and other leaders within companies, foundation leaders, advocates in NGOs, university and think tank leaders and policy makers, as well as emerging leaders preparing to spread their wings.

Our reflections below are based on our experience working with leaders over the past 15 years.

The Best Leaders Are Inclusive

Melissa Karz | Next Step Partners

Thoughts from Melissa Karz | Los Angeles
Whether one agrees with his policies or not, or the manner in which he communicated to and about others, Donald Trump effectively communicated authenticity and trust to millions of Americans and enrolled them in believing that he embodies strength, vision, values and change.

While these are all positive and desirable leadership qualities, I know from working with hundreds of leaders over the years that there are many ways to communicate all of them without alienating and hurting others by being sexist, racist, misogynistic and homophobic.

Diversity is a great asset–it’s a necessity when it comes to innovation. But to reap the benefits of diversity, we include rather than alienate. Diversity means having access to a range of views, some of which may offer challenges to the status quo; inclusion means committing to those practices that ensure these voices are heard and respected, and that everyone can contribute and progress in practice, not just in theory.

Inclusion is not only a business imperative but also a moral imperative. Practicing inclusion enables companies to stay competitive by accessing all of the passion and creativity of all of their talent. It also ensures that all individuals in an organization—or country—are valued and that everyone counts.

Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks recently said, “Support the good. Lobby against what we disagree on. No one is bigger than us all.” In thinking about the future, we need to heal the divides and this begins at the individual level.

Inclusion is not only a business imperative but also a moral imperative. Click To Tweet

But it also must include all of our community and business leaders across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Now is the time for us to come together as one country. We’re committed to developing and supporting leaders who embody positive change, inclusiveness and tolerance for difference.

The Best Leaders Grasp the Unexpected

Shari Cohen | Next Step Partners

Thoughts from Shari Cohen | New York

The election of Donald Trump was one of those unexpected, consequential turning point events that we have seen with increasing frequency over the last 25 years, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, to 9/11, to the financial crisis and even the hurricanes that have devastated New Orleans and the New York metro area. These “Black Swan” events, to use Nassim Taleb’s influential term, seem to be coming more frequently. As with those events, this one was unanticipated, by experts and citizens alike. And most of the tools and theories that are used to judge the views of the electorate proved unreliable.

Yet as with each of those events, the signs were there for all to see, but established frameworks and wishful thinking got in the way. Leaders were viewing the election through lenses that limited their ability to see an undesirable possibility.

Leadership, particularly in a world of discontinuous change, requires the ability to look around the corner and take in information that does not support long held assumptions and convention, that offends values and affirms our worst fears. Leaders must then to take action that may challenge the practices of yesterday.

We need to consider the possibilities both that Donald Trump could surprise by shifting to a much more mainstream policy agenda AND that he could govern according to some of his scariest campaign promises. As many have pointed out, Trump is not ideologically committed; so the very opportunism that led to his victory could lead him to move closer to the center. At the same time we need to face up to the fact that he may mean what he has said (with his appointment of Bannon boding ill), as not doing so could lead to the belief that the status quo will likely continue. At different times and places in history we have seen both of these pathways come out of a wild card or outsider candidate.

Leadership requires the ability to look ahead and challenge long held assumptions. Click To Tweet

Leaders need to stand by the values that make this country great AND to consider that the victory of Trump is a much-needed wake-up call about the challenges that we face, from the torn fabric of our population, to what happens if the progress on averting climate change slows or reverses.

Ultimately, leadership at moments like this requires facing up to the changes we need to make in ourselves to take on the emerging new world we live in.

The Best Leaders Take a Stand

Rebecca Zucker | Next Step Partners

Thoughts from Rebecca Zucker | San Francisco
Some of the best leaders I have seen in my work as an executive coach are low ego. They are able to put their own ego aside to take a stand to do what’s right — for the customer, the team, the organization or even for their entire industry and their larger communities. They do the right thing, even when it’s not the popular thing to do or when it may not serve them personally.

Strong leaders don’t just lead by rhetoric, they lead by positive example. When others go low, they go high. They stand up for the values they hold dear. In doing so, leaders set the norm for their teams, organizations and others who look up to them. Many leaders forget or lose sight of the power that comes with their position and the effect that it has on others, for better or for worse. The racist, xenophobic and misogynistic messages and behaviors have been normalized and legitimized by our new President-elect, and have tragically resulted in hundreds of hate crimes across the country.

Strong leaders take a stand and speak up against hate and injustice. Click To Tweet

Strong leaders also take a stand and speak up against hate and injustice, and care about their people. The swift public statement made by both the President and Provost of the University of Pennsylvania condemning a recent racist message received by Black freshman students is an example of such leadership. I have also seen some of my clients show tremendous leadership by standing up against injustices when they’ve seen them, such as pay inequity and other forms of discrimination, and I applaud them for doing so. The times require this from more leaders, more of the time.

The Best Leaders Take Action

Michael Melcher | Next Step Partners

Thoughts from Michael Melcher | New York
Leadership doesn’t wait for certainty. You can’t know how things will turn out. You take action anyway.

I grew up feeling mismatched for my time; a liberal Democratic who came of age in a conservative geography and in a Republican era. For decades I dabbled in politics here and there, but never felt that I was in the right place at the right time. But this past year I decided to involve myself. I had admired Hillary Clinton for many years and knew that there might not be another chance to elect someone I felt this kind of passion for.

I volunteered as a fundraiser, and quickly discovered how hard it is to raise money, even from strong partisans. I went to events and rallies, which were fun and inspiring but which seemed limited in impact. I did get-out-the-vote with my toddler sons in New Hampshire, which is painstaking, time-intensive work that yields few immediate rewards. I liked being involved, but at the same time I felt that the real political world was, and would always be, beyond my grasp.

Leaders recognize that constructive action is always within everyone’s power. Click To Tweet

But as I went along, I got messages. A woman I had known in high school wrote to me and said that my actions were appreciated more than I could possibly know. After the election, friends from across the country reached out to check how I was feeling—including Republicans, who sent warm greetings. My children’s immigrant nanny hugged me and told me that I done my part and could move on. I learned that my posts had been forwarded, that my thoughts had been thought about, and that my actions had been observed. To my surprise, I had had an impact beyond myself. People seemed to see me as a kind of leader. Maybe I was.

I saw Secretary Clinton a few times in person and the word that always came to my mind was “grounded.” She knew what she stood for and why she was doing what she was doing, and she kept going past every setback. She took action, as did millions of her supporters. And regardless of the results of this particular election, constructive action is always within our power.

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