Last year I wrote about leadership and I lamented that leadership traits seemed to be lacking among too many of our political leaders. I also noted that the presidential election featured two candidates with high unfavorability ratings and I questioned why a country that produced innovative companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook, could not find leaders of similar excellence in the public sector as well.
Since I wrote that blog, I (like many others) was struck by the negative and divisive tone of the last presidential campaign and how that tone continues to permeate our daily lives. I worry that this loss of civility in our public life will do permanent harm to our country. While it would be nice if we could all agree, that is not realistic and furthermore, democracy thrives on disagreement. However, disagreement does not mean disrespect.
In the past year, we have seen a Republican congressional candidate assault a reporter and we have seen a Democratic leader insult the president as well as members of his own party with obscenity laden tirades. Lawmakers in both parties find it difficult hold town hall meetings because they apt to be shouted down by hecklers.
College campuses, which should be a place where dissent and discussion are not just tolerated, but encouraged, have unfortunately become increasingly intolerant. Most universities laud the value of diversity, but they seem committed to all kinds of diversity except for diversity of thought. Speakers are routinely disinvited because they espouse unpopular views and some have been attacked and chased off campuses by those who disagree with them. Our society claims to value a “liberal education,” but too many fail to understand that the word ‘liberal’ refers to the Latin root “pertaining to liberty” and freedom of speech means protecting and listening to the speech of those with whom you disagree.
Sadly, conflict and incivility have become the new norm. Donald Trump ran a campaign in which he routinely insulted his opponents – “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “Little Marco Rubio,” “Crooked Hillary,” etc. Since becoming president, he has failed to become what we in the past would have termed, “presidential.” He called Senator Chuck Schumer the “head clown.” This is not solely a Republican problem. Incivility can be found on all ends of the political spectrum. Tom Perez, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee routinely makes use of profanity at his anti-Trump rallies.
How will this loss of civility impact the country and what can leaders to make a difference?
In 2009, David Zax of Smithsonian Magazine wrote:
“We are facing a crisis. There is a growing consensus that the situation is dire—and looking bleaker every day. Almost everyone has contributed to the problem, and everyone is a victim of it.”
The catastrophe that Zax wrote about was the “coarsening of America” and he estimated that it costs America over $100 billion a year in accidents and diminished productivity. Sadly, this situation is getting worse. Today, most political ads seem to offer some version of ad hominem arguments, which are essentially personal attacks. Such arguments are no more than logical fallacies in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character or motivations of the person making the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. There was a time when such arguments were recognized by most as nothing more than the offerings of someone who was incapable of mounting a more reasoned response, but today, they are commonplace and becoming more accepted. This kind of personal vitriol cause many qualified people to avoid the political arena. Who would choose to be the target of mudslinging? A return to civility would benefit us all.
Civility is not just an essential trait of effective leaders, but it is necessary in all aspects of life. According to The Institute for Civility in Government:
“Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same.”
Christine Porath the author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace,” wrote in the Harvard Business Review:
“Being respectful doesn’t just benefit you, though; it benefits everyone around you. In a study of nearly 20,000 employees around the world (conducted with HBR), I found that when it comes to garnering commitment and engagement from employees, there’s one thing that leaders need to demonstrate: respect. No other leadership behavior had a bigger effect on employees across the outcomes we measured. Being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback — or even opportunities for learning, growth, and development.”
In other words, civility is the hallmark of great leadership and it pays.
Perhaps the best know authority on this topic is Dr. Pier Massimo Forni, a Johns Hopkins professor of Italian literature, who teaches courses on Dante and Boccaccio. In 1997, Dr. Forni co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. He has lectured extensively and published several books. Dr. Forni has identified twenty-five rules that are essential in connecting effectively and happily with others. Among these rules, Dr. Forni suggests:
- Give Constructive Criticism
- Refrain from Idle Complaints
- Respect Others’ Opinions
- Don’t Shift Responsibility and Blame
- Care for Your Guests
- Accept and Give Praise
Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business is the founder of Heterodox Academy, which is committed to supporting and increasing “viewpoint diversity.” Dr. Haidt strongly believes that we do each other a disservice when we fail to encounter each other’s conflicting views. Dr. Haidt is committed to fostering an environment, where “cherished beliefs” are challenged and this can only occur when we interact with civility.
Perhaps, the tide is beginning to turn. Just the other day, Senator Jeff Flake gave a remarkable speech in which he excoriated the president and the current political climate. He said:
“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve . . . Leadership knows where the buck stops. Humility helps. Character counts. Leadership does not knowingly encourage or feed ugly and debased appetites in us.”
Although a tyrant may engender compliance, a true leader is one who interacts with others in a civil manner. Such leadership is not only good for business, but it is good for society.