It’s hardly news that America and its government are polarized. In the opinion of many historians, the country is suffering a political divide more profound than any since the Civil War. Congress hasn’t experienced such ferocious partisanship since the end of Reconstruction, a period when lawmakers were grappling with such epic issues as protecting the lives and rights of four million recently freed slaves and regulating the unprecedented power of business interests created by the post-war economic boom.
Today, the issues are different – healthcare, immigration, gun violence, the list goes on – but the deep polarization, and resulting inability to enact smart, effective national policies, is the same.
There is a difference, however, between previous divides and our current situation, according to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. Today’s partisan divisions, he notes, are less about economic policy and more about identity. In the past, people typically defined themselves politically based on their financial interests. Today they are more likely to base their politics on such traits as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion, gender, et cetera.
The powerful emotions associated with identity make compromise among groups, and political leaders, more difficult. And that’s a real problem. For as German statesman Otto von Bismarck famously noted, “Politics is the art of the possible – the art of the next best.”
This dynamic isn’t limited to national politics. It impacts local government as well. The recent mayoral race in my hometown of Atlanta is a prime example. While the election was happily notable for featuring a run-off between two female candidates, it was sadly predictable in its race component. Some supporters of African-American candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms, the eventual winner, argued that it was essential to the black community’s well-being to keep an African American in the mayor’s chair. Some backers of white candidate Mary Norwood whispered, without definitive evidence, that the incumbent African-American mayor, Kasim Reed, was inept and corrupt, and that pattern would continue if another African American were elected mayor.
Fortunately, Atlanta has a better race story to tell, one that offers leadership lessons not just for politics, but for any organization that grapples with diverse stakeholders and competing objectives. It’s the story of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and the aforementioned Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed.
Deal, a white Republican with rural roots, and Reed, a black Democrat from metro Atlanta, would seem to have little in common. By their admission, they disagree on about 80% of public policy issues. But they agree on one thing: you can accomplish a lot when you don’t care who gets the credit, or whether the action is going to enhance your standing with a narrow base of political supporters. This shared philosophy is the cornerstone of the amicable relationship Reed and Deal forged as members of the Georgia legislature and continued to nurture in their respective executive jobs.
During their overlapping tenures, Reed and Deal set aside the 80% of issues where they disagreed and focused instead on the 20% where they shared a common interest. Among the problems they tag-teamed with lawmakers and other stakeholders were job creation, transportation funding, housing, deepening the Port of Savannah and construction of the Atlanta Falcons new home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Reed served as Deal’s main channel to the Obama administration, while Deal helped Reed make inroads with GOP members of the Georgia legislature on issues critical to Atlanta. None of this stopped the two leaders from speaking their hearts when they disagreed. Reed opposed Deal’s troubled schools initiative. The pair differed over immigration policy and of course, Donald Trump.
There is no doubt that Atlanta and Georgia have benefitted mightily from the Deal-Reed relationship – from their ability to set aside personal political philosophy and identity in the interest of pursuing “the possible” for the community. The story of Mayor Reed and his “GOP Buddy” is now etched Atlanta’s memory and imagination. During the mayoral campaign, both candidates agreed that it was critical for city’s next mayor to build a similar relationship with Deal and his successor as governor.
As the new year gets underway, take a few minutes to consider the Reed-Deal dynamic and how it might apply to your leadership situation. What more could you accomplish in your organization if you were able to make some common ground with a seeming opponent or rival? Have you been open to such overtures from others? Does your network provide enough diversity to allow you to reach across superficial divides to form mutually beneficial alliances?
Committing to growth in these areas will make 2018 a better year for you, your organization, and, in a small way, for America.