[March 10, 2014] One way for those of us in senior leadership positions to show our professionalism is by how we act when we lose. A common phrase is “grace under fire” and is a desirable professional leader characteristic.
Just recently, one of the U.S. President’s nominees, to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, failed confirmation in the Senate. The politics of the failure is not the salient leadership lesson, nor the advance miscalculation of the vote. What does matter is the way the defeat was managed by some of the leaders.
White House messaging was that the loss was a “tragedy” and the opposition thus demonized. Some have even called votes against confirmation a “racist” reaction to an African-American nominee. As we have seen repeated these past few years, divisive messages are used in an attempt to increase the President’s power over the other political party. Yet, the treatment of the issue was neither graceful nor professional. Moreover, the opposition will use the overreaction to score political points.
An opportunity of significance was lost. Senior leaders can gain credibility, be seen as self-effacing, and more honest if their reaction is less emotional and more graceful. Humor helps further this cause.
Why did those in the White House leadership react with such vitriol? Was it a lack of understanding of leadership basics? An unexpected emotional outburst? The answer to these questions is “no.” A political calculation, like all senior leadership behavior, sends a message.
In this case, the audience was the NAACP and a deliberate, negative reaction by White House leaders was a message that the NAACP’s full support of the President is important – the nominee himself was actually of lesser importance.
Grace under fire? No. Success in scoring political points with the NAACP? Yes. More divisiveness? Yes. Political advantage gained? Unknown. Senior leaders in the White House have certainly calculated this as a gain and that is why we saw what we did.
Repeated use of this style will diminish leaders and their ability to get results.
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See also a related blog post on “Maintaining the Human Touch” at https://www.theleadermaker.com/characteristic-49-maintaining-the-human-touch/