Originally published on Medium.
Return to civil discourse is the only path forward. In the decades I’ve spent focusing on how to make business relationships yield strategic results, my clients have included leading companies that set the pace for entire industry sectors. I profoundly wish I could bring some of the advice that has helped corporate leaders excel to our elected officials currently NOT working in Washington D.C. They badly need greater skill in building strategic relationships.
This government shutdown is fundamentally a breakdown in strategic relationships. The fractures run within each party, across party lines, and across branches of federal government. The result is a broken system. The leaders we’ve elected can’t get in a room and hold a civil conversation.
We started out on the right foot over 200 years ago. I am a relatively new U.S. citizen; I received my citizenship in 1994 after emigrating from Iran as a teenager. I have immense respect for the way this country’s founding fathers conceived a democracy that could operate in the best interests of its people. Yet our elected officials seem to have entirely lost sight of that.
The two-party system works when its participants believe in civil discourse. We send leaders the majority has elected into dialogue with each other to create legislation. We expect them to disagree because we expect them to bring their passion and their principles to the conversation. We absolutely need two parties with unique ideologies, to generate diverse ideas. Diversity of opinion is an enabler of great relationships, because it leads to more substantive exploration of many facets of any issue.
We elect our leaders expecting them to disagree with each other, but we also expect them to avoid hostility, antagonism, and disparagement of each others’ moral worth. We expect good judgment and good manners. We must demand a return to civil discourse.
In other political eras, our leaders have managed this. Back in the 1980s Ronald Reagan couldn’t have disagreed more with Tip O’Neill on numerous ideologies, but he managed to maintain a civil relationship with his Speaker of the House. Either one could say, “give me a call and we’ll talk through this.” Astute politicians not only develop the skills but also prioritize investing the time to identify, build, and nurture relationships up, down, and across the political ecosystem in which they operated. Investment in strategic relationships takes place over time. It is fundamentally necessary to prevent the sort of impasse we’ve now reached in Washington. Today, I see zero evidence that our elected officials even understand the investments (time, effort, resources) it takes to create and capitalize on strategic relationships.
Every day I counsel corporate leaders in strategic relationship skills. When a new CEO steps into that role, his or her first priorities are directed toward identifying where strategic relationships will facilitate the enterprise’s mission, vision, and values. Building those relationships is Job #1. One of the first things I teach my mentees is to recognize the difference between a transactional and a transformational relationship. Transactions are “one-and-done,” myopic in perspective—the people involved are focused on their desired outcome without concern for the bigger picture. Transformational relationships, on the other hand, are ongoing, mutually beneficial, and value-generative for all parties.
Today’s political impasse is the result of transactional relationships. Our leaders should have invested time and effort to build transformational relationships with others, well in advance of the need. Instead, they seem to hold the sound-bite battle more important than the desired outcome. How can we bring them back to building the transformational relationships that will help the U.S. answer the real question, which is—how do we take care of those social needs, without bankrupting this country?
Our elected officials must find a way to retain ideological differences yet find common ground. We need a government versed in what corporate leaders know: how to hold civil discourse, how to invest in strategic relationships, and how to prioritize transformational relationships over those that are merely transactional in nature.
Earlier this year I wrote on Huff Post BUSINESS about ten relationship development attributes that lead to successful strategic relationships. I have observed that outstanding leaders can access specific traits when what I call “Relationship Impact Moments” arise. These are:
- Empathy — Walk in their shoes.
- Engagement — Show up.
- Adaptability — Tailor it.
- Perspective — Change their lens.
- Conviction — Bring a point of view.
- Collaboration — Make it stronger together.
- Selflessness — Lower your self-interest.
- Accountability — Own it.
- Candor — Say what others won’t.
- Improvement — Raise their game.
I submit that our founding fathers had a level of maturity and mastery of these traits that served them well in governing through a two-party system. Most of the people we’ve elected to public office since then have likewise been able to apply these attributes to govern fairly and productively. Why can’t today’s legislators do the same?