Dissenting With Grace or What We Learned from John McCain

Reaching across the aisle

This week, in the wake of Senator John McCain’s death, the news was filled with tributes and remembrances from his friends, colleagues and family. From the beginning it was clear those tributes weren’t partisan. They came from both sides of the aisle, perhaps none as succinct as Joe Biden’s, “My name is Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat. I loved John McCain.” What do any of these remembrances surrounding McCain’s death have to do with leadership? A lot actually.

One of the great truths about leadership is good leaders are confident enough to embrace dissension with grace. If McCain’s life taught us anything it’s that we should be passionate, we should care, we should love a good argument. But that the argument is about work, it’s about the place we serve, the museum we care about, and when it’s over, we reach across the aisle or the table, shake hands, share a drink or a raucous joke.

Too often leaders, particularly leaders unprepared for their role, can’t abide dissension. It rocks the boat. They can’t separate themselves, even in their own heads, from the organizations they serve. And that is an important distinction. While some days–the Sunday you wore your oldest sweat pants to the grocery store and ran into an important, and impeccably dressed donor aside–it may feel like you are your organization, you are not. You serve the museum. You don’t embody it. And it’s that distance that permits you to welcome dissension at the staff table.

And dissension is necessary. In eulogizing McCain, President George Bush said, “Back in the day, he could frustrate me. And I know he’d say the same thing about me. But he also made me better.” It’s not just you who needs to be better, it’s your organization. If secretly, you’ve made up your mind, know what you want, then have the guts to state it and stand behind it. Don’t waste your staff’s time by asking their opinion when what you really need is adulation. That might work once, but over time it wears thin. Staff stop offering ideas, and neither you nor your museum changes for the better.

Encouraging dissension and discussion is a great equalizer. It says to everyone in the room that all ideas have value, from the person hired last week, to the person who’s working on her BA, to the curator with the PhD. Encouraging staff to be direct and strong-willed means they won’t flinch if you are direct and strong-willed back. They understand it’s not personal, it’s about work. Allowing your staff to bat an idea back and forth, engenders trust. Why? Because it tells the participants you trust them. Discussion isn’t about who wins or gets her way. It is an act of creation with the museum’s best interests at heart. And that’s what we’re all after isn’t it? A better museum—right?

Joan Baldwin

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