The urgent advice I'd offer Biden to lead a torn country?
Only half of us feel like we can breathe; and that’s the problem
Hi friends, what an Inauguration week! As an American, I’ve never been so grateful for a peaceful transition of power. Now that it feels safe to exhale, I’m realizing how taxing this political cycle has been on my body. And as a leadership coach & organizational change consultant, I’ve been asked — how would I coach Biden through this fraught transition? Well, I humbly share my thoughts below. As always, if you’re enjoying this newsletter about how to move forward in these turbulent times, I’d appreciate your help in encouraging others to subscribe so that we can have a different kind of dialogue! Much love, M.
This week’s commentary: Only half of us feel like we can breathe at a time; and that’s the problem.
As a woman of color from a family of illegal immigrants, I exhaled for the first time in four years after Wednesday’s blissfully peaceful transfer of power.
In watching a fellow woman of color sworn into the executive branch, I cried.
And in hearing Biden speak so plainly from the heart, I was overjoyed — a mature, empathetic leader in the White House!
There were many times over the last four years where I questioned whether I could belong in Trump’s America, and whether I’d be safe. (e.g., After Trump’s “kung-flu” rhetoric, there was a significant rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.)
And as I’ve written about before (here and here), many who voted for Trump are also likely wondering what’s going to happen to them in a country that doesn’t seem to welcome them anymore? The same cycle of outrage, contraction, and grief that I went through four years ago, many Trump supporters are likely going through right now.
When half the country doesn’t feel like they can belong if the “other” is in power, only half of us can breathe at a time.
As long as we’re in a framing story based in scarcity where “power over” (aka, supremacy) is the only way to feel safe, we’re never going to find a way to live together. We’re just going to flip-flop roles in an endless fear-based drama of victim vs perpetrator.
Being stuck — personally or collectively — is a sign that our stories have become too small.
Just like crustaceans who regularly shed their shells to grow, we need to shed the old “I win, you lose” framing. In a zero-sum mindset, our nervous systems get stuck in chronic fight/flight (in what I’ve previously called reptile culture here). It’s exhausting! And when we’re constantly in survival mode our higher-order mammalian capacities — like empathy, collaboration, and creativity — go off-line.
So in a country where only half of us can breathe at a time, how should Biden lead?
1. Biden needs to let go of old mental models of leadership.
Rather than see the country as a machine that needs to be fixed, he needs to see the country as an organic (living, breathing) system that needs healing.
The prevailing mental model of leadership stems from the industrial age where the challenges leaders faced were akin to running a factory — complex, but possible to tame with enough technocratic rigor and management “science”. This was the approach I learned as a McKinsey consultant and as a Harvard MBA. And from what I hear from friends in Washington DC circles, it’s the lens that the many McKinsey-esque Obama-era alums now joining the Biden administration see the world through.
The reality is that we can’t always solve things mechanistically through “science”. For example, as I wrote about last week (here), QAnon supporters genuinely believe they’re patriots; sharing more facts or analysis won’t change this.
To be fair, the technocratic approach to management is good for certain types of problems. For example, rolling out large scale infrastructure projects to get people working again and improve the economy’s competitiveness is something that Pete Buttigieg — an ex-McK’er leading the Department of Transportation — is positioned to do well.
But the key as a skillful leader is to recognize: what kind of challenge do we face, and what’s the right mental model to address it?
The truth is that our most vexing challenges as a country relate to healing our deep divisions.
And if what we most need is healing, well then, Biden needs a completely different paradigm and set of strategies. The most beautiful Excel models and project plans are never going to meaningfully help us transform as a nation.
Rather, in the words of noted child psychiatrist and prolific author Dr. Dan Siegel —
“Health in living systems is determined by the level of interconnection between disparate parts”.
At the level of the brain, mental health and capacity for complexity is predicted by the density of neurons between different parts of the brain. At the level of family, cohesion and love are a function of quality of presence and attunement between parents and children. And at the level of a country, social coherence and adaptability depend on the depth of relationships across disparate groups.
By contrast, chaos and rigidity are symptoms that the system is unhealthy or has experienced trauma. They’re signs that things aren’t flowing smoothly because there are either blockages or insufficient connections.
Ultimately, healing means bringing things that were once disconnected back into relationship. And this is what all time-tested healing traditions do.
For example, yoga in Sanskrit literally means to “yoke” or “re-unite”. And its tools are focused on training the nervous system to settle deeply enough to allow the body’s inherent healing capacities to kick in so that what was originally cut off (likely to protect the system) is brought back into relationship with the rest of the body.
2. Biden needs to see himself as Re-Connector in Chief.
Re-building relationships between things that have become disconnected is neither easy, nor something that can be forced. Having been on my own transformational journey the last 8 years, I can attest that healing has its own logic, rhythm, and timing that cannot be legislated.
But what reliably helps in the healing process? Creating safety and support for the nervous system.
At the tactical level, Biden’s already working on many of the things the country needs to feel safer. (e.g., Economically — rushing out stimulus checks, focusing on job-creation; politically — expanding the narrative from Us-vs-Them to a story that’s more inclusive).
Perhaps more importantly, at the meta-level of leadership, Biden most needs to remember that the quality of his presence has the potential to shift the country’s nervous system. As emotional intelligence researcher Daniel Goleman has noted:
“In groups where there are power differences… it is the most powerful person who is the emotional sender, setting the emotional state for the rest of the group.”
Over the last four years when the country lurched from one reactive Tweet to the next, we saw the impact of a stormy, dis-regulated leader on the emotional state of the nation. (I sometimes wonder what I’ll do with all the mental real estate freed up now that he’s out of office.)
But when a leader operates from a sunny, settled nervous system, there’s a higher chance the rest of the group will too. The quality of a leader’s presence is literally infectious because of the power of mirror neurons. As social animals, we evolved to mirror the state our leader’s nervous system.
So, leaders, in a very real sense, bring the weather. …which can soothe or stir.
And what gives me real hope is the enormous body of research that has shown that experiences or parts of ourselves that are not well-integrated can become integrated through the deep presence of another well-regulated person — whether it be a parent, partner, healer, or leader.
The key that we need to remember is that healing is fundamentally relational. And ultimately the quality of that relationship is a function of how attuned and synchronized our nervous systems are.
With that foundation, we can perhaps relax enough to help America breathe again.
In places that feel stuck, what’s the story you’re telling? Or, what needs to be acknowledged? What bigger story might hold the complexity of the moment?
For the kind of challenge(s) you’re facing, are you using a mental model / set of strategies that match?
In places that are stuck/rigid or chaotic, where do you need to come into deeper relationship?
Drop your thoughts in the comments, or feel free to send me an email. And as always, I’d love to hear your reactions!
PS, A big thank you to my teacher / mentor Jean Mazzei for helping me see where I’m still living in old paradigms as I wrote this post!
Melissa’s Reading / Listening List
What’s giving me hope?
Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands on healing racial trauma by settling the nervous system.
It’s hands down one of the best books I read last year. And it offers a realistic and practical look at what’s needed to heal America’s deepest systemic wound of racism.
Steven Hassan’s work on how to bring QAnon believers back into mainstream society through relationship.
Yes, I fell down an internet rabbit hole on this one. But Hassan is one of the country’s leading experts on cults (after he himself was recruited into the Moonies in the 1970s). The crux of his work rests on the idea that it’s not possible to convince or shun someone into leaving a cult (like QAnon); rather, it’s only possible for people to rediscover who they are through compassionate relationship with people who knew them before.
Dave Snowden’s helpful leadership framework called the Cynefin model.
In short, he breaks systems down into 4 types: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. Once you understand what kind of system you’re in, instead of feeling blind-sided or perpetually frustrated, you can adapt your style to match. Here’s his HBR summary of the model. And if you’re craving more, here’s a 50 minute intro talk on the model that originally captivated me at the Responsive.org conference.
What’s making me curious?
George Lakoff’s book The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain & Its Politics.
Lakoff is a professor emeritus at Berkeley and one of the foremost experts on the framing of political ideas in America. One of his core ideas is that politicians use language that taps into tropes that help people feel comfortable. Brain imaging studies, for example, show that conservatives prefer order and predictability, while liberals prefer variety and diversity. Hence, Republicans tend to use the metaphor of a “strict father”, and Democrats use the rhetoric of a “nurturing parent”. If you want the TL;DR, this 20 minute interview he did just before the election does a good job summarizing Lakoff’s life’s work and gave me a lot to chew on about how to shift our civic discourse.
And in case you missed it…
How true success might be learning to feel safe in each other’s arms.
Here’s a piece I wrote last year about how a foundation of safety and security helps us tap our highest “mammalian” potential.
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