Leadership and the Human Connection: Lessons from the State of the Union

Posted 01.26.2011

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?