Leadership Lessons: Reaching Out to Rivals

President Obama and Cuban Leader Raul Castro Shaking Hand at Nelson Mandela's Funeral (file photo)
President Obama and Cuban Leader Raul Castro shaking hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. (file photo)

When President Obama reached out and shook hands with Cuban dictator Raul Castro last week at Nelson Mandela’s funeral the Republican leadership in Congress rushed to the television cameras to criticize the president.  The GOP’s shameful response to the president‘s display of graciousness during a solemn ceremony in honor of someone who epitomized forgiveness is exactly why Congress lacks the leadership skills to get anything done in Washington.

Had President Ronald Reagan declined a working relationship with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the world could have been consumed by nuclear holocaust.  Perhaps the most famous example of leadership by reaching out to rivals is President Abraham Lincoln.  He appointed campaign opponents to cabinet posts; then extended his hand in peace to Confederate rebels promising a post-Civil War America, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

One of the most difficult challenges for effective leaders is to be able to bury the hatchet with opponents to benefit those they serve.  True leadership embraces conflict and bridges differences for the common good.  When I served as a trustee on the East Side Union High School District, overcoming differences with a rival led to the approval of two of the most important district initiatives during the past half dozen years.

The district’s board of trustees appointed me in 2006 on a 3-1 vote.  Trustee Frank Biehl was the lone dissenter who vigorously argued against my appointment, so our relationship started off on the wrong foot.  Adding to that dynamic, he and I are from different worlds.  Frank is white, I’m Latino.  He’s the oldest son from a successful family business.  I’m the youngest son from an east side working-class family.  He’s pragmatic, I’m passionate.  On the board, we rarely found common ground.

Two years later, Frank was again the sole “no” vote on my reappointment to the board.  That term we started off on two wrong feet.  I broke the cardinal rule of leadership; I took Frank’s opposition personally.  Instead of looking for common ground, I sought out conflict with him.  The result was a lack of productivity on my part.

When the board took a preliminary vote to eliminate after-school sports, we again were on opposite sides of the fence.  As a former student-athlete I understood the value of athletics and proposed a plan that would restore funding to the programs.  After Frank’s initial vote to eliminate sports programs, he reconsidered and unveiled his own plan to save sports.  I didn’t like his ideas and prepared myself for a long fight.

My personal issues with Frank had trumped doing what was right.  Rather than fighting for student-athletes and their families, I realized I was opposing Frank’s plan because he had opposed me.  It was a valuable on-the-job lesson.  I learned that leadership shouldn’t be about me, it should be about those I serve.  I reached out to Frank and expressed my concerns about his ideas, and he did the same.  With his pragmatic approach and my passion for student athletics, we compromised and saved sports programs.

He supported my candidacy for president of the board a year later.  When I announced an initiative to make college entrance requirements the default curriculum for all students, Frank and I shared ideas and worked together for the good of students.  I spent that summer in the hospital and he came to visit me.  A personal rivalry had turned into friendship.  That fall, Frank and I joined a unanimous board in passing a historic policy that ensured that every East Side graduate can to go to college.

I learned a valuable lesson.  Leaders must overcome personal differences in order to make decisions that benefit those they lead.  Whether you’re PTA president, on the Little League board, a supervisor at work, or President of the United States, these three simple rules can help you avoid the pitfalls caused by personal problems:

  1. It’s not about you.  Your role as a leader is to serve others, not the other way around.  Your decisions will impact, negatively or positively, those you lead.  So make decisions with them in mind.
  2. Keep Your Eye on the Prize.  Why did you seek out a leadership role in the first place?  Probably to make things better or to make a change.  Don’t let personal issues get in the way of accomplishing what you set out to do.
  3.  Find Common Ground.  Rival leaders may share your vision to make improvements or change, but have different notions on how to get there.  Listen to what they have to say.  You may find that you have more in common than you think.

Leaders are like the rest of us replete with biases, emotions, fears, and dislikes.  Yet unlike the rest of us, they must overcome those personal barriers to ensure the common good.  Just imagine what kind of world we would be living in if President Lincoln didn’t have the courage to embrace his rivals to keep our nation united or President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev let personal philosophies keep them from the Cold War peace table.

2 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons: Reaching Out to Rivals

  1. Great post Eddie. Love the inclusion of Lincoln’s gesture of forgiveness and compassion after the loss of so many lives from the battles of the CivilmWar.

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