It’s been a couple of weeks since President Obama won reelection. As the country reflects on the meaning of the election and again projects its hopes and fears onto the President, I see the presidential election and the tone of our politics so far as symbolic of organizational changes we often confront.
The first only. For organizations that bring on a first member of a new (to them) community, the dynamics are almost always challenging. The first must often be extraordinarily qualified to blunt the inevitable criticism that difference is the only reason for the hire. Whether seen as a representative of the new constituency or transcendent of the identity (e.g., post-racial), the newcomer is rarely seen or treated as an individual informed by background rather than fully defined by it or, conversely, wholly independent of it, as in just like us. Moreover, the first only is usually acutely aware of that status and recognizes limits on freedom of expression due to the experience of being misinterpreted. [For an in-depth look at this dynamic, see especially Fear of a Black President in the Atlantic Magazine.]
–The establishment delegitimizes the newcomer as not one of us. This dynamic came to a head in the elections but has been present for the first entire term. In organizations, the establishment faces difference and confronts dissonance: what will become of us if the assumptions we made about who belongs are now challenged? You might hear language of cultural fit, not understanding our ways, not like us, too different, and the like. This focus on the salient difference obscures discernment of the only’s contributions.
–Change requires listening to others—the newcomer(s) have a perspective and lived experience not shared by the establishment. Yet, because the establishment delegitimizes the only they can’t listen for the very information they need to succeed in the new era.
–The outsiders expect immediate transformation. Whether the nation or your organization, the constituents who see themselves in the only, want change to happen quickly. They are understandably impatient as the change signaled by the first only is typically generations in coming. Anything short of immediate inclusion of the new constituency and its needs as the priority agenda for the organization can be experienced as a betrayal.
–People forget the “consent of the governed” part. That is, they view leadership as something they have delegated rather than as a process that is co-created. Especially in the US political system but also in our organizations, people behave as though assigning someone a role is all that is needed for their success. How you support leaders, join with them, hold them accountable, contribute to their effectiveness, provide them with information, practical action and more is as essential to a leader’s success as the skills and experience the leader brings.
Which of these dynamics have you experienced in your organization?