Thursday, February 18, 2021
OK, let’s talk about Ted Cruz’s trip to Cancun, not because it’s an easy target for social media outrage, but because I think it offers helpful insight into why we have become so frustrated with our political leaders. I fully understand a father’s desire to give his daughters a vacation in the midst of a challenging year, and I agree that Senator Cruz could have worked from Mexico via phone and Zoom. The vacation wasn’t a failure of logistics, and it wasn’t just a case of bad optics – it was a disregard of a core element of leadership: affirming through word and deed that, no matter the challenge, we are all in this together. Living out this affirmation as a leader has several dimensions:
First, leaders must be willing to share in the risk. If you are leading an organization that requires some employees to be on site during COVID, and you are working remotely from the safety of your home office, that sends a strong message to your employees who are on site. If your state is suffering through widespread power outages during frigid weather, and you remove yourself from those risks for sunnier climes, you’re not leading effectively. Ted Cruz needed to tell his daughters that the vacation would have to wait until the crisis was over.
Second, leaders must be willing to share in the sacrifice. Knowing that sacrifice is shared is a remarkably powerful motivator and encouragement for a community in crisis. When a leader doesn’t share in the sacrifice, there is no faster path to cynicism. When California Governor Gavin Newsom was photographed at a fancy dinner party, and it appeared that his group was not following the COVID protocols imposed on everyone else, that was a crushing blow to his ability to lead his state through the pandemic.
Third, leaders must be subject to the same accountability. When members of the public screw up, they usually have to make amends. Especially when they have influence over the tools of accountability, leaders have to make sure that they are transparent about their mistakes. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made misjudgments about placing people suffering from COVID in long-term care facilities early in the pandemic, that was bad, but given what little we knew about the disease at the time, it was arguably an understandable mistake. Working to conceal that mistake in the months since – for a leader – is inexcusable.
Fourth, leaders must show that we possess the same dignity. Leaders will invariably disagree about ideas with those whom they are called to lead. Disagreement should be open, direct, and respectful. Disagreement never justifies leaders characterizing those they are called to lead in ways that are demeaning or characterize a person as “the other.” That is why Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment was so inappropriate, and it’s why so many of President Trump’s comments were inappropriate.
Looking for a good counter-example? While she was far from the most memorable leader in Chicago's colorful history, something Mayor Jane Byrne did has stuck with me ever since I learned about it as a kid. She moved into the Cabrini Green housing project. Like other mayors before her, she pledged to improve public safety, but then she backed it up by actually living in a spot that was perceived as being among the most dangerous in the city. That’s a powerful example of how to say, “we’re all in this together,” and leave no uncertainty that you mean it.
The tendency to extend preferential treatment to ourselves over others is not a partisan problem - it's a human problem. It's one I struggle with as well, and when it's left unacknowledged and unaddressed, it's an obstacle to effective leadership.