The hearing is over. The CEO is pressured to resign.
The referendum is over. England will leave the European Union.
The election is over. The United States is no longer united.
Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf was dumbfounded at the feedback he received during the hearing and in the aftermath. Londoners didn’t understand the country they live in any longer. And both candidates in the 2016 United States Presidential Election were surprised by an outcome that had been predicted so differently even 24 hours before the result became clear.
Half of the constituents are happy. The other half are distraught. It’s a sign of leadership failure on both sides. And it leaves a colossal challenge for the path forward. What leadership skills were missed? What happened that the result of the collective decision was unanticipated on both sides?
What happened that months of campaigning, millions of dollars invested and the most transparent flow of information in human history led to this surprise? Clearly messaging, money and transparency are not enough. Important, but not enough. Let’s take a closer look at what led to the surprise outcomes:
1) A Colossal Disconnect
As leaders rise to the top they can’t do everything themselves any longer. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. They are encouraged to delegate — and the good leaders do this well. In order to delegate they need to surround themselves with a group of trusted and competent people that can and will move the agenda forward on their behalf. So far so good. As the organization, company, campaign grows, the leader becomes more and more removed from the day to day activity required to keep the apparatus humming. Less and less time is spent with the constituents that matter for the outcome. The constituent could be the employee, the customer, the shareholder, the voter. Each failure scenario demonstrates a breakdown in connecting to the base that will support future efforts.
In the case of Wells Fargo, the forgotten base were the customers who didn’t sign up for millions and were charged fees for unnecessary bank accounts and the employees who were pressured to create those fake bank accounts.
In the case of Brexit and the U.S. election, the forgotten base was the voter who was disgusted by the choices and disillusioned by a political system spearheaded by Washington D.C., which left them behind.
In the process of leading a company or a campaign, leaders are far removed from the base and rely heavily on their advisors. Real conversations with constituents are replaced with rallies, interviews and sound bites. The disconnect is almost inevitable.
2) Lack of Empathy
As companies grow and as political parties decide on the platforms they are running their campaigns from, constituents naturally align themselves with who and what they believe in. They take a stand in doing so. Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with that. We can’t all agree on everything, but it leads to a culture of ‘us vs. them’ or ‘me against you’ and a tone that thrives on bashing and creating outcasts. Our brains are hardwired to do this for good reason. We perceive the ones that aren’t with us as threats and do everything we can to distance ourselves from them. There is a problem with this behavior, though. It assumes that some of us are right and some are wrong when, in fact, no one has all the answers. It assumes that one group is better than the other when, in fact, we are all equal. We might look different, speak different languages, and believe in different things, but when it comes right down to it, most human beings merely want to have food and shelter, raise our children well and live in peace.
“When we believe in lies, we cannot see the truth, so we make thousands of assumptions and we take them as truth. One of the biggest assumptions we make is that the lies we believe are the truth!” Don Miguel Ruiz
The more people say the same thing, the more we believe it’s true. How many things have you been told by your parents that you found out later weren’t true? Santa Claus, anyone? We have grown past Santa, of course. However, we are not immune to making assumptions. Here are just three that were made during the referendum and the election:
• Polls can be trusted
• Past party loyalties will continue
• Everyone plays by the same rules and standards
One could write another article about what went wrong with polling. Suffice it to say that any poll, survey, or focus group will only provide a snapshot of time and space. It can reveal trends so long as the right questions are asked and people will actually tell the truth. Clearly that is not always the case.
As a leader, here are three fundamental questions to ask that will guide you in the right direction:
1) Who are all of my constituents and what do they really need? How could I find out?
2) What conversation am I missing with people that think/are unlike me?
3) What am I assuming about the current state of affairs?
If you realize that you might not know the answers to the questions asked, click here and put ANSWERS in the subject line. I will happily engage in a conversation with you how you could get the answers.
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