Can President Obama Build a Common Ground?

Posted by Kristin Arnold on March 14, 2009

I keep thinking about President Obama’s closing remarks last week in his address to Congress.

“I know that we haven’t agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways.  But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed.  That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done.  That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.”

These are words of a consensus-builder.  A man who has the strength of character to enlist a relatively bi-partisan cabinet.  A man who speaks well around the notion of “collaboration.”

As a collaborative team-builder myself, these words resonate with me and I have great hope for the future – even in this pitiful economy.

Even though Obama is the president, one man may not be able to change a 200 year “democratic” culture – which runs on a two-party platform.  Our democratic system is not about “collaboration” – it’s all about compromise and negotiation.  I’ll give a little to get a little.  That’s why the promise of “no pork” is ridiculous and the stimulus package is rife with pet projects (I am sure they are all worthy!).  It’s the democratic system where the two parties will reach across the aisle…and compromise.

Collaboration is a very different animal.  Neither elephant nor donkey, collaboration starts with an outcome, removes the positions and taps into the collective consciousness to arrive with various possible solutions.  Then takes those possibilities, and in some strange, chaotic discussion full of combinations, permutations, and suggestions, the group arrives at a mutually acceptable solution.  It’s a “win-win”.

Democracy starts with a position and sticks to it…unless someone else is willing to trade their more lukewarm position.

Steven Covey, in his highly celebrated book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” shares a cultural perspective about what it takes to shift into a collaborative mindset:

First, you have to know what a “Win” is.  Covey calls this integrity.  I call it rising above a position.  You can truly win if you look at the outcome first, and then harness the creativity of the team to identify possible solutions.  It’s more than just the positional solution you brought to the table.  Once you voice your position, it is one among many options to consider.  Once you put it on the table, you let go of the “ownership” which changes the perspective of a “win” from your position being selected to selection an option that will achieve the mutual outcome.

Second, you have to have an “abundance mentality” where you truly believe there are enough wins out there.  In a world of scare resources, elections where somebody wins and the others lose, and years of compromising simply because you believe there are NOT enough wins to go around, this is a tough mental model to break.

Finally, you have to have the maturity to balance the courage to say what needs to be said and being considerate to hear what others have to say.  And we expect our politicians to have the maturity to really listen to each other when the markets are crashing all around us?

President Obama is but one man trying to change over 200 years of culture.  I truly wish him well…but the vision of Sisyphus keeps coming to mind – a hero trying to push a rock uphill.  But we must try, regardless of 200 years of bipartisan politics.

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