Do you prioritize freedom or safety? What if I asked “do you prioritize lives or guns?”
Each of these questions leads with and taps into our values. Depending on how the question is worded, your response is visceral as is your surety of the “right” answer. And what often follows is a polarizing debate filled with ugliness and hate. In essence, the conversation ends before it even begins. We retreat to lick our wounds, regroup with like-minded people, and throw up our hands that common ground is impossible.
This merry-go-round of emotion and reaction is fueled by our current approach to politics and media. And while it may be the stuff of entertainment, it is not the right environment for effective policy. The Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) program seeks to build an improved environment by selecting a coalition of diverse leaders from different political, industry, and ethnic backgrounds who are committed to solve our world’s most pressing problems.
I was recently selected to join the fourth class of PLS, and our opening module included a whirlwind of speakers across the Clinton and Bush administrations as well as acclaimed business and community leaders. What struck me most was a deep commitment to our country, whether we were listening to Sylvia Burwell, former Secretary of Health and Human Services and current President of American University, or Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education and current President of the University of North Carolina. Perhaps the most surprising gem for me was an exercise on value-based decision making with former Director of the U.S. National Economic Council and Lecturer of Economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Keith Hennessey.
Society applauds leaders who hold fast to their values and beliefs despite challenge and opposition. But, as multiple leaders expressed during our first week of PLS, the issue with making sound policy is most often not about opposing values. Instead, it is about prioritizing multiple values within a constrained environment. Jonathan Haidt explores this conundrum in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you’re like me, the idea that we should be willing to compromise our values makes you uncomfortable, especially if you pride yourself on following a strong moral compass. But, as Haidt says, morality, “binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.”
The premise of PLS is that if you are a leader committed to making the world a better place, you must be willing to listen to and learn from those with opposing viewpoints to create sustainable change. In the short time since our class began, I have pushed myself to be more direct and outspoken about my beliefs and experiences as a leader and woman of color raised in a lower-middle class military family. There have been times where my experiences have had a positive impact on my fellow classmates, and other times when I’ve been confronted with and embarrassed by my own biases and assumptions about others. My experience to date has been powerful both professionally and personally, and most of the reason why is that I’m being forced to re-examine and question how my values and beliefs enhance and hinder my relationships.
One of my PLS colleagues came up to me after witnessing an emotional exchange between a fellow classmate and me. She told me she didn’t know what to say, and she didn’t know who was right or wrong. But she did know that both sides had experienced pain and perhaps acknowledging that fact was a good place to start.
When you listen to Emma Gonzalez speak about losing her classmates, you may not agree with her position. You may not agree with her word choice. But we can all agree that she, her classmates and their families have experienced pain that we hope no American will have to suffer.
My time with PLS has led to a deeper appreciation of the Everett Dirksen quote- “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” Regardless of where you stand on the gun debate or any other polarizing issue, can you try something for me? Can you find someone that you know with an opposing view who is willing to have a respectful conversation with you about why she thinks differently on this issue? Can you commit to listen and seek to understand his viewpoint? You have no obligation to change your mind, but hopefully you are flexible enough to open your heart.