Leadership and the Human Connection: Lessons from the State of the Union January 26 2011

Sotu2011 If you’re looking for an example of how much things can change in one year, play back a recording of last night’s State of the Union address and compare it with a recording of last year’s. Last night, of course, moved by the tragedy of the shootings in Tucson this month and the grave wounding of one of their colleagues, the Members of Congress sat together in the House chamber in a bi-partisan fashion. Instead of the traditional division of Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other, they all sat together in bi-partisan pairs of friends, as mixed state delegations and, in one case, as the House women’s softball team.

It was just a year ago that the State of the Union speech was interrupted every few minutes by the denizens of one party or the other jumping up to cheer like fans doing the wave at a football game while the other half of the room sat in sullen disapproval with arms crossed, typing on their Blackberries or, in one case, shouting out, “You lie!” at the President.  The television commentators reported  that the “”You lie!” guy was sitting with a couple of Democrats last night.

How did the scene change so much in one year? Searing tragedy that hits home in a personal way can remind us of our common humanity and the ties that bind. It’s a perspective builder – at least for a time.  Another factor is the pressure of peers. Apparently once the idea of the parties sitting together gathered momentum, just about every Member of Congress made sure they were sitting with someone from the other party. The result was perhaps one of the most coherent State of the Union addresses ever if for no other reason than the speaker wasn’t interrupted by vociferous partisan demonstrations from the floor every few minutes. The room looked like a body of people that were mainly there for a common purpose.  For me, it was the kind of thing that makes you proud to be an American.

Will the comity last? I hope so, but as they say, time will tell. Is there a larger leadership lesson here?  Perhaps. Last night, for however briefly, colleagues were reminded of what they have in common and the broader purpose they have come together to serve.  It took a tragedy for that to happen in the case of Congress, but that doesn’t have to be the case in your organization. If you’re the leader, give some thought to the occasions you can create that bring people together on a human to human level.  If you’re honest with yourself, there’s probably not much of that in your organization on a regular basis. 

Why should that be the case?

4 Responses to “Leadership and the Human Connection: Lessons from the State of the Union”

  1. Wow Scott, I loved your analysis and particularly your closing thoughts.

    Barring such horrific tragedies as that in Tucson, I find that what's missing in teams and organizations that aren't coherent is conversation – the type that promotes understanding of differences. I recently experienced such a bipartisan elected body telling me that they had so much to do, how could they possibly expend the time to converse? It seems to me that a lot of time is used up in unproductive conflict when a whole lot of time could be recaptured by simple "conversations for understanding". Sure, its hard to do in public forums. But wouldn't it be amazing if our elected leaders modelled these conversations for us in a public way?

  2. Tom Schuler says:

    Like the guys in Washington, sometimes business teams become a bit 'clickish', focused more on their own internal stuff than the employees and customers that they are supposed to serve. I'm not sure the Washington gang can remain focused on their constitutional rather than political obligations, but as business leaders we are 're-elected' by our 'constituents' on a daily basis. Scheduling time every day to walk the organization has always worked for me. Getting my leadership team to do that same, however, is not easy and requires constant reminders. Way too many leaders hide behind hierarchy. Its comfy and warm. I'd suggest that hierarchy is fine for decisions, but not so good for aspirational leadership. The gang in Washington needs to establish a better balance. So do we.

  3. Marc Sokol says:

    Three things continue to shape how people engage:
    1. A shared experience, in this case a sad one in Tucson, that was still on the minds of the participants and people they cared about (the public)
    2. A shared symbol. It's hard to unload at 'the other side' when they are wearing ribbons just like you are; that was a visible reminder of the shared experience and says we have something important in common.
    3. The seating arrangements. Stanley Migram's obedience to authority psychology studies demonstrated years ago that people are more likely to inflict pain on others from a distance vs. up close. It's easier to boo someone across the room than when they are sitting next to you. (Michele Bachmann excepted!)

    Get people close enough to experience each other as people, not just representatives of some point of view, and you pave the way for more listening, more civility and hopefully real dialogue.

    Great post, Scott.

  4. Scott Eblin says:

    Mary Jo, Tom and Marc – thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, advice, experience and analysis. Full disclosure to everyone else reading, I know Mary Jo, Tom and Marc in varying ways on a personal level and am fortunate to have them as friends. When you read their comments you can see why!

    All the best –


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