One of the most important and least well-known leadership coaches of the late twentieth century is the rabbi and family systems therapist Edwin Friedman. Friedman (who passed away in 1996) spent several decades teaching and consulting to congregational leaders and pastors, as well as corporations, government agencies, and the military. Although he died while he was still completing the book that he considered to be his magnum opus, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Seabury, 2007), is one of the most influential books I have ever read. Not just on leadership. One of the most influential books. Period.
The most effective leaders, he writes, are those who exercise the least amount of blaming, and who take the greatest amount of personal responsibility for their own “emotional being and destiny.” He calls this capacity the basic building block of integrity, and integrity the cornerstone of effective leadership. He continues:
In families and other institutions, emotional processes are always more powerful than ideas…A society cannot evolve, no matter how much freedom is guaranteed, when the citizenry is more focused on one another, than on their own beliefs and values…When a society (or any institution) is in a state of emotional regression, it will put its technological advances to the service of its regression. (Italics in original)
Like many people in America and throughout the world today, I have been pondering the meaning of the Trump nomination, and asking myself, “why and how did this happen?” I want to suggest that Trump’s candidacy and popularity tells us less about who Donald Trump is (which I think is quite obvious at this point), but rather who we are as a people, a country, and a nation. In a healthy, functioning democratic system someone like Trump would have been filtered out of the race long ago.
Consider another way in which Friedman describes a society in a state of emotional regression:
It [devolves] by reversing the direction of adaptation toward strength, and it winds up organizing its existence around the least mature, the most dependent, or the most dysfunctional members of the ‘colony’…it undermines excellence by encouraging society to organize around its most dysfunctional elements.
I suggest that Trump’s ascendancy is a sure sign of a society in emotional regression. Trump is already blaming Hillary Clinton, the media, and all the “bad hombres” out there for the outcome of an election that he hasn’t even yet lost! And although we’ve grown accustomed to political mud-slinging, this election has taken us to new levels of personal attacks, claims without any grounding in fact or reality, and avoidance of the actual issues that face us as a nation today. While Trump is an easy target, both political candidates and parties are responsible for the state of our discourse. And, more importantly, we all bear a collective responsibility for the state of our political discourse. That’s what it means to live in a democracy.
When you get past the theatrics and the inexcusably racist-sexist comments and tweets, Trump’s appeal is primarily his iconoclasm. We’re used to politicians claiming that the system is broken, but Trump has waltzed into the middle of our political theater like a bull in a china shop and presented himself as a real alternative to the status quo. And in a certain sense he is right. He is an alternative to the status quo (albeit one who corrodes the very foundations of democracy and human decency). Even while respecting Hillary Clinton’s political accomplishments, we have to admit that she is the perfect embodiment of the status quo. We’re left with a choice between someone who represents an unacceptable status quo and a demagogue. Neither choice is very satisfying.
I’ve talked with many family members, friends, and colleagues who feel genuinely uncertain about how to vote in this election, or whether to vote at all. Personally, I am deeply uncomfortable with the Clinton campaign’s disparaging comments about people of faith, including my own Catholic faith, and her stated desire to repeal the Hyde Amendment (a budget rider that is overwhelming supported by most Americans in the sensible middle). But in the end I intend to vote for Hillary Clinton simply because the alternative is unimaginable to me, and the potential consequences of providing Donald Trump with access codes to nuclear weapons are terrifying beyond words. However, this is not an endorsement of Clinton, nor am I suggesting how anyone else should vote. Everyone enjoys both the burden and privilege of political freedom, and that is the capacity to make up his or her mind about how to vote. That is how democracy works.
But here is what I think Trump’s presence in this race illuminates – that is, that most of us have a gut-level sense that our political and economic system is failing us. We implicitly feel and know that the system has become rigged against the average worker and families trying to make a living (let alone those who are most vulnerable and disenfranchised). Without getting into academic debates about how or why this has occurred, many Americans sense that the political and economic system currently exists to funnel money, capital, and power toward those who are at the top, leaving less and less to support the rest of us. (For a very approachable analysis of how this has occurred systematically over the past several decades, and some helpful suggestions for reversing it, I recommend Robert Reich’s book, Saving Capitalism.) Trump parasitically feeds like a death eater from Harry Potter on the fear and insecurity that this system breeds for those who feel the promise of a brighter future slipping away. But that doesn’t mean the fear isn’t real, or that it isn’t founded in reality.
Let’s consider a few examples. By removing campaign contribution limits and cloaking the trail of unlimited political campaign contributions the Citizens United Supreme Court case in 2010 has only increased the power of wealthy individuals and corporations to manipulate the political rules of the market to their own advantage (and to the disadvantage of everyone else, especially the most poor and vulnerable). Even Obamacare – which I initially supported because it extends health care to more of the most vulnerable in society and creates many necessary reforms – has turned out to be a plan that keeps our health care delivery system focused on increasing the wealth of private insurers by slowly bleeding everyone’s savings (assuming you have any to begin with). Bill Clinton’s recent comments about the unintended increases in cost for some middle-class Americans under Obamacare is quite accurate. Take my own family for example. I have what would be considered a solid, middle-class, professional job, and we can barely figure out how to cover our day to day medical expenses for a family of five. Meanwhile, if I want my children to have the same kind of opportunities for education and advancement that my parents provided for me, I need to be saving hundreds of dollars a month toward their college savings, which I can’t do because I’m paying for health care, housing, food, and clothing (in that order). Which leads us to the question of how my children will be able to afford to pay for college without taking out loans equivalent to a mortgage, from which they can’t seek relief even if they file bankruptcy… You get the idea of the snowball effect here, and the fear and anxiety this engenders in people. My stomach is in knots just writing about these challenges. These are real fears that people all over America are experiencing.
This is what Friedman would describe as a gridlocked system. We’re stuck. The characteristics of a gridlocked systems are:
- An unending treadmill of trying harder;
- Looking for answers rather than reframing questions; and
- Either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies
Sound familiar? Me too (and I chose to skip watching the debate last night).
OK, so what do we do about this? One place to turn during these dark days is to ask the question, “what would an emotionally healthy society expect from its leaders?” Friedman is helpful here as well. It is worth repeating that “vision is basically an emotional rather than a cerebral phenomenon.” We’re dealing with an emotional process, not a set of data that need to be crunched to yield us the perfect policy answer. The only way to move beyond gridlock is to find the courage to engage in adventure and risk. These virtues – courage, adventure, and [intelligent, informed] risk – are the only ways to break through the barriers of gridlock and fear. Unfortunately, this is also one of the hardest things to do when dwelling inside an emotional system trapped by fear, anxiety, and narrowed vision.
I think there is both a big-picture way to respond to our current gridlock, and a more immediate way to respond. The big-picture way is to identify and support leaders who exemplify this kind of courage, adventure, and risk that is also oriented toward the signs of a healthy emotional system. Friedman identifies the “three essential characteristics for an enduring society, whether it consists of ants or humans, [as] cooperation, cohesiveness, and altruism.” In Catholic social teaching we would call these solidarity, justice, and pursuit of the common good. They may go by many names, but these are universal human values that are present in any healthy society.
But this big-picture approach has one flaw. That is, it keeps us all focused outside of ourselves, looking for someone else to pick up the mantle of courage and to fix things for us. If we’re not careful, this can also be a form of shirking the kind of responsibility for our own emotional processes that are necessary for healthy leadership. It’s a bit of a catch-22. That’s why we need to ask the question about who we are, along with the question of “who am I?” We can’t control the toxic emotional climate of the presidential race and party politics, but we can control how we choose to engage in and respond to these toxic emotional patterns. We can take responsibility for our own emotional processes amidst this political-economic climate.
It just so happens that practices such as mindfulness, meditation, or contemplative prayer are highly effective ways to begin to take control of our own emotional processes. Entering into silence provides a necessary barrier between the integrity of our own individual emotional processes and the toxic media-political-economic environment that surrounds us. It enables us to find our own center of wisdom and integrity. Only from there will we be able to access the courage, adventure, and risk necessary to move into a healthier future.
Finally, I want to conclude by stating that we need both the big-picture and the immediate response. The two work in a kind of synergy. Cultural change has almost always occurred through mechanisms initiated by leaders who are able to garner enough prestige to begin to break apart the underlying values, assumptions, and emotional processes that sustain the gridlock of the old system. At the same time, however, we can’t wait around for Superman. In order to begin to break out of the fear and anger that has us trapped as a nation, each of has a responsibility to take responsibility for what we mirror back into the emotional feedback loop of our social body. Each of us as citizens of the world, and citizens of America, need to ask both questions simultaneously – who are we? and who am I? Whatever practices – contemplative or otherwise – that we can do to support the kind of change that asking these questions demands of us will be at least one small step in the right direction.