Leading in an Age of Political Polarization


David Brubaker says leaders need different skills in this age when deep political divisions affect our families, congregations, and communities. It requires clarity, compassion, courage, and connection.

Leading in a polarized environment requires a very different set of skills. While thoughtful leaders normally want to plan a process, form a team, and work for consensus, patience with process and finding consensus will be elusive in a polarized environment. The twin temptations of leaders in a polarized context are either to take a side (fight) or to run from the fray (flee). But there is a third way beyond flight or fight for leaders caught in the web of polarized relationships. It requires clarity, compassion, courage, and connection.

1. Clarity

Leaders who succeed in an age of polarization demonstrate clarity at two levels — within themselves and with others. Internal clarity requires that leaders know and act on their core values and principles. What’s important is that we know ourselves. The most destructive leaders I have encountered are those who were utterly clueless about their behavior and its impact on others. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian and author, identifies a list of traits associated with effective leadership: “humility, acknowledging errors, shouldering blame and learning from mistakes, empathy, resilience, collaboration, connecting with people, and controlling unproductive emotions. All of these require self-awareness as well as other awareness.

Clarity within begets clarity with others. When we know who we are and what we believe, we naturally communicate that clarity to others. This is not an attempt to convert others to one’s beliefs. Rather, it is an expression of candor or transparency — a willingness to reveal our inner thoughts and beliefs to others. Clarity with others thus requires both internal clarity and relational courage — the willingness to reveal one’s beliefs and values even at the risk of rejection or ridicule. Jesus demonstrates this clarity and courage in his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, when he claimed a prophetic mantel and challenged the townsfolk to understand God in universal (rather than tribal) terms.

2. Compassion

Compassion and clarity belong together. Clarity compels us to speak with conviction. Compassion invites us to listen with concentration. It is in the dance between clarity and compassion that leaders build trust. We tend to respect those leaders who know what they believe yet are equally interested in learning about our beliefs and experiences. Genuine compassion also requires that leaders understand the multiple sources of identity and life experiences that shape the radically different perspectives of human beings. Compassion does not require agreement. Compassion requires that I acknowledge the dignity of another human being and commit to attempting to understand their perspective. This very attempt creates a human bond that may overcome polarization. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other — not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn out common suffering into hope for the future.”

3. Courage

Polarized times demand courageous leadership — in universities, businesses, congregations, nonprofit organizations, and governments. It takes courage to initiate a listening-and-change process on a highly polarized issue. Courageous leadership requires entering the storm of conflict while holding tight to one’s convictions and compassion.

4. Connection

Leaders who survive in polarized environments exhibit clarity, compassion, courage, and connection. Such leaders begin with an internal connection to their own values, beliefs, and emotions. They are then able to connect with those they are leading and with the communities in which they live and work. Finally, they strive to stay connected even with their enemies. Staying connected with our enemies requires an acknowledgment that they too possess basic dignity. Connection may have the greatest impact at the community level. While structured dialogue processes have their place, it is in the process of working together (even more than talking together) that genuine bonds of friendship are forged.

Transforming Polarization

What steps can individual leaders take to overcome polarizing tendencies in ourselves, our relationships, and other social systems? Within ourselves, we can start by refusing to hold others in contempt, by honoring the inherent dignity of every human being, and by broadening our thinking and speaking beyond the binaries of our typical discourse. In the context of our relationships, we can commit to seeking first to understand (before trying to be understood), inviting disagreement, and staying connected in the midst of disagreements.

As leaders in our congregations and other organizations, we can work to unearth the underlying issues (rather than over-focusing on the identified issue), strengthen the connections among members, and examine the historical patterns (including historical traumas) that may be keeping us stuck. Within our communities and society, we can work with others to change the political culture and structure, transform the religious and social culture, and perhaps most importantly, rebuild civil society.

Religious congregations gather the most people, and thus are the most significant, of all sectors of civil society in the United States today. Therefore, there is no more important venue where we can work to rebuild civil society than in and among religious congregations. Ecumenical cooperation and interfaith collaborations emerge as the primary mechanisms for rebuilding civil society in any community. As we restore civil society community by community, our society will also begin to heal.

Note: The author credits John Maxwell for initially developing a list of five “C’s,” including “Candor,” which inspired this list of four C’s. (See JohnMaxwell.com blog from November 13, 2018.)

Adapted from When the Center Does Not Hold by David Brubaker, copyright © 2019 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission. No further reproduction allowed without the written permission of the publisher. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

David Brubaker

David Brubaker is Director of the MBA and OLS Programs and Associate Professor of Organizational Studies at Eastern Mennonite University. He has trained or consulted with over 100 organizations around the world, and wrote Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations.

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