Lessons from the Presidential Primaries

May 14th, 2008

Eating Our Own

We've been watching the Presidential primaries roll out with quite a bit of interest here at Rockwood. As you might imagine, we are fascinated by how leadership is being defined and what "competition" looks like in this day and age.

I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised any longer by the vitriol in some of these campaigns, but it still stuns me, especially when I'm expected to cast my vote later this year. I have to admit that I'd love to wake up one morning to hear a candidate say "well actually, my opponent is quite worthy, there are many reasons to support his/her candidacy, and here's why I'm running..." That alone might be enough to get my vote.

Sometimes I like to think that we do better in supporting leaders within the social change and transformation sectors. Perhaps we do, but there are still ways we tear each other down.

Leda Dederich, a good friend and colleague recently offered a definition of "power mapping" that was new to me. She describes behavior that people at social events often exhibit, where someone assesses the importance of someone else and uses that assessment to determine how much time, energy, or interest they will invest. You may have experienced this phenomenon - you meet someone, they quickly size you up, and if you pass muster they engage. If not, they look over your shoulder to see if another person deemed more important is on the social horizon. Perhaps you have done this yourself.

Or perhaps you've taken a certain delight in the downfall of a colleague - the Germans have a word for this - schadenfreude. It means the pleasure taken from someone else's misfortune. Conversations around the water cooler can sometimes take this tone.

Over the years, I've heard many leaders say that a large part of burnout is caused by criticism from colleagues, funders, boards of directors and staff. This is a tragedy. What if rather than picking at a colleague's leadership, we were to hold up what is great about what they are doing?

What would your leadership look like if you were never criticized again? How might it feel to get up in the morning? If you could imagine a lifetime of leadership that had no criticism in it, what might you be able to do?

What if you never criticized anyone else? What might shift in your organization if everyone refused to criticize?

Now I'm not proposing that we stop giving each other feedback. Quite the opposite. We need solid and strong feedback in order to improve our performance, and to have the impact we want. Feedback is essential to good leadership. However, there is a difference between challenging feedback and criticism. Criticism is rarely offered with the person's well-being first and foremost. Criticism rarely comes from the heart, nor is it often compassionate. Challenging feedback, on the other hand, is neutral at worst, and can be uplifting when given with a heart of goodwill.

Take a moment and scan the people with whom you work and live. Who could use some praise for work well done? Is there an appreciation you've been meaning to offer, but haven't gotten around to? Is there a "thank you" that needs saying? Whose day might you lighten with a pat on the back?

One of the most effective tools in our leadership kit is appreciation. I encourage you to offer some to those working and living with you. Make sure it comes from the heart, that it is brief, and sincere. We could all use some praise now and again. Let's spread it around - it's good medicine for an ailing world.


May 2008