Operating Mode

Listen. An awakening is emerging, noisy and insistent. 

2017 began with the Women’s March, a global event estimated to have contained over 4,000,000 marchers in cities across the US and another 300,000 participating in 261 sister marches around the world. The year saw record turnouts for special elections that overturned long-held beliefs in the supremacy of incumbent parties. Protesters flooded legislative offices throughout 2017 to push back hard against changes to government programs. And then there was, and is, the extraordinary social reckoning over sexual harassment, abuse and assault.

All this tumult forces the mind on what type of leader is called for now. I’m not talking about what should happen to shore up the leaders presently in place. No, the majority of those leaders are showing themselves to be unfit for the moment. I’m talking about the great leader, the person who recognizes the use of power for a greater good, the person whose intention lies beyond his or her particular ambition or desire.

This is the leader cited by Harvard Business School professor and historian Nancy Koehn in her September 2016 Facebook Live video on leadership lessons. Using the lives of Abraham Lincoln and Rachel Carson as benchmark, Koehn outlines the common qualities of great leaders. The video is a worthwhile view yet it was roughly halfway through when another, more prescient observation came clear. It was at this point that Koehn brought up our modern inclination toward disjointed, fractured behavior, our transactional mode of operating. The concept gave me pause. I replayed her words again and again, letting them burrow deep into my thinking.

A transactional mode of operating is essentially a transactional mode of relating. Transactional relating is human interaction expressed through a series of short encounters, of bartering, of deals. Transactional relating lowers human interaction to the baseline of individually driven purpose. You do this for me and I’ll do this for you in return. Of deepest relevance is that transactional relating sits behind every infraction, injustice and inconsideration this great awakening is trying to right. So with this understanding, what type of leader is called for now? The relational leader.

Ady Barkan is a relational leader. I saw him last night, purely by chance, on the MSNBC program All In with Chris Hayes. Barkan, an activist and lawyer for the left-leaning Center for Popular Democracy, has been trending lately in his effort to dissuade legislators from passing the GOP tax bill. (As of this evening, the Senate passed its second version of the bill, opening a channel for Presidential approval by Christmas.) Whether or not you share Barkan’s political views, his entire mien is the antithesis of transactional. He is using his platform, his charisma and his focus to create change that benefits more than his personal concerns. He is centered on energizing and influencing others, through compassion and empathy, to reach beyond the immediate. His approach echoes those of Lincoln and Carson by expanding his own personal struggle with ALS to generate a common good. More of his kind of leadership is what the times require.

This awakening we are under, which has barely begun to pull at and refashion us, is demanding a great deal from our institutions, our norms and our ways of being. It is demanding a renewed sense of social and civic purpose. It is demanding a chorus of great, relational leaders to scrap away the callouses covering our newly birthed truths. And it is demanding the creation of rejuvenating interactions based on the long-game of relationship rather than the short-game of transactional deal making.


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