I had a dream the other night. Some of you might say it was more of a fantasy than a dream.
The dream was about one of the upcoming presidential debates. In the dream, Gov. Romney was saying that just like the Democrats want tighter regulation of the banks, so Republicans would like better control of immigration. President Obama paused for a moment, taking in what his “opponent” had just said, and then replied, “You know, Mitt, I never looked at it that way. You have a good point. Let’s go out for a beer after this debate. I’d like you to explain this to me in more detail.”
You see why I called it more of a fantasy than a dream. The cynical among us will probably respond that a) it will never happen, and b) it would result in certain defeat for Obama.
The cynics might be right on both counts, but when you think about it, isn’t that tone what we want restored to all levels of government?
I often hear pundits everywhere from the New York Times to the Forest Park Review lamenting the negative tone of the campaign. Critics wish the candidates would move away from personal attacks and toward substantive issues.
But I wonder. I wonder if what we need right now is not a president with great ideas.
In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz argues that there are two kinds of problems: those for which someone knows the answer and those for which no one knows the solution. In the first kind of problem, you find an expert and the expert fixes the problem. In the second kind, there are no experts, so what Heifetz says we need is a leader who can call all the stakeholders together, agree that there are no easy answers and together muddle through till a solution is found.
I wonder if what we need right now is not an expert but a leader who cares less about winning and certainly less about his/her ego and more about gathering all the stakeholders together and doing the hard work of reaching consensus – for the good of the people.
The next night I had a similar dream, only this time it took place at Forest Park Village Hall. During a village council meeting, the same thing happened. Instead of proposing and defending a position, the five commissioners acknowledged that a) none of them had all the answers and b) they believed that each of the other four had something to contribute.
The third night I had a similar dream, except this one took place in Springfield.
I spent 30 years of my life trying to lead faith communities. Some of the issues we faced could be resolved by finding an expert – like a plumber or a banker who could tell us the right, effective thing to do.
But some of the questions – e.g. how do we keep our teenagers involved or what can we do to help blacks and whites and Thais and Hispanics understand each other better – had no easy answers. What we had to do is gather the teenagers together and start talking and listening, to bring the different racial/cultural/gender/age subgroups together and engage in respectful conversation. It was very hard work, and rarely resulted in the discovery of a perfect solution, but usually everyone left meetings feeling good about the tone and the process.
That approach has less to do with substance and much less to do with personality and much more to do with posture. It has to do with how we “lean into” a problem, with the attitude that it’s not about me or about winning but about doing the most good for our church, village, state, nation … and, dare I say, world.
I have a suspicion that my dream is not a fantasy but rather a vision, which we can not only share but can also empower us to say no to winning at any cost and say yes to respectful, mutual problem-solving.