When John Boehner announced his resignation as Speaker of the House earlier this month many thought he was sending the message that his party was so deeply embroiled in dysfunctional conflict that he could no longer envision a path to being successful.
He also sent a clear signal that his party had reached a critical point in its ability to constructively manage its conflicts and work together toward a shared vision and picture of the future that will engage all its members, young and old members.
The party, represented by an elephant as its symbolic mascot, has a big elephant of its own to confront.
The biggest elephant and real problem the Republican house members must confront is a lack of leadership. Leadership that can demonstrate the capability and skills required to constructively confront and manage conflict.
At first glance, one could easily conclude that the conflict on Capitol Hill should be considered normal. An old and oddly familiar elephant representing ongoing differences that one would expect will sooner or later get worked out.
At closer examination, the elephant is much bigger and stronger than that and is one that will require much greater change in how the party’s leadership acts.
The biggest elephant and real problem the Republican house members must confront is a lack of leadership. Leadership that can demonstrate the capability and skills required to constructively confront and manage conflict. This is a big undertaking. One that will test the party and have a great impact on its ability to show it can be responsible enough to be trusted with the next presidency. The timing is critical.
There is little doubt that Americans are more than fed up with the inability of their political leaders to manage conflict constructively. Baby boomers have experienced far too much dysfunction from leadership in both parties. And while boomers may have grown accustomed to living with the dysfunction, younger people have experienced enough to decide that they cannot place their trust in leaders unable to deal with conflict effectively. There’s just too much rigidity, criticizing, and a complete lack of effort to collaborate.
According to current projections from the Census Bureau, Millennials now nationally top 83 million and boomers are just under 75 million. With younger voters traditionally leaning toward more liberal and Democratic Party values, and more interested in talking about what is possible versus the rehashing of old battle lines and conflicts, they appear to more than ready to move beyond the bipartisan politics, gridlock, and the unpleasant experience that they have listened to their parents complain about.
This bodes well for a Democratic Party that has the appearance of being cohesive and more in alignment in its vision, a favorable position when Republicans can easily be seen as rigid and set in the ways of coalition building that conveys mistrust and fear of one another. And drives results in dissatisfaction, makes voters fearful, and creates the skepticism, mistrust, and cynicism that continues to pervade. What will it take to overcome the sense of dysfunction, over-the-top gamesmanship, and destructive conflict that the Republican House appears to be mired in? Who will take the on the task of responding to the big elephant of the current leadership vacuum?
When all is said and done, great leaders are expected to do three things: create change, confront conflict, and to know themselves. These interdependent pursuits lie at the core of everything truly successful leaders do. Of these, it is the charge of constructively confronting conflict that the next leader of the House will need to demonstrate the most. Only then, can we expect the necessary change that will bring the Republican Party back to health.
That will require a leader who is aware of his emotions and behavior, and can demonstrate the ability to listen to the members of the Party and articulate an inclusive and shared vision. Rather than to be demanding and combative in wanting to realize their own agenda, they must be able to clearly communicate an intention and desire to work collaboratively and build trusting relationships. This will further require them to intentionally inquire and effectively listen to the expectations of not just their peers.
To be successful, the next Majority Leader of the House will need listen to their voters much more. Not for the sake of creating a rebuttal or finding the next chess move to make. Rather, to truly listen to what the people of their party are wanting for their future. And what they want from them as leaders.
This will demand a great deal of self-knowledge and emotional maturity. For in the end, as we all know, it is about trusted relationships. The next leader of the House will need to relentlessly focus on this simple truth.
Recently, when asked about Paul Ryan as the potential next speaker, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that if Ryan does decide to seek the speaker’s gavel, he will learn quickly — and encounter early problems. “It’ll take him about six weeks to go from being a policy guy to a process guy and he’ll be very good at it. But it’s a different world with a different set of rules. That’s what he has to think through: Is that really a world he wants to be in the middle of? Is he willing to endure the scarring?”
Gingrich’s words not only remind us of the level of dysfunction that has resulted in a current condition that offers little room for a leader to succeed. He also reminds us that paying attention to the building trusting relationships is not currently front and center on the radar screen. And it needs to be. As much as people create and use processes, they only work as well as the relationships that make them, and the success that follows, come to life.
The next Majority Leader will need to focus on building the trusting relationships needed to create a shared vision and engage all the members of the Republican Party. He or she will need to listen to create the changes in the party and the nation that the public expects. To do so, they will need to understand their own relationship to conflict and choose the behaviors necessary to constructively confront it. This is truly the Holy Grail of leadership and lies at the core of the success of the Republican Party.
Show me a leader that does not confront conflict, and I’ll show you the biggest elephant in the room.
At this critical moment in the history of the Republican Party, the next Speaker of the House simply cannot afford to become the biggest elephant.
Edgar Papke is a leadership psychologist, coach, author, and award-winning speaker. He recently authored The Elephant In The Boardroom: How Leaders Use and Manage Conflict to Reach Greater Levels of Success (Career Press, 2015).