An Essential Election Lesson For Leaders: Change Is Not Enough - We Must Evolve

09/14/2016 06:00AM

“Change” is the word I have heard most often in postmortems on the 2016 election. America was tired of business as usual: Trump won because he represented change – disruption of the status quo; Clinton lost because she offered more of the same – she was the status quo.

Perhaps. But we’ve been having these discussions about change basically every eight years since term limits were imposed on the presidency after FDR. Since Truman, America has followed a pattern of voting the current party out of the White House after eight years, ostensibly in the interest of “change.”

But have the ideas really changed? With notable exceptions, what we have gotten often seems like anything but – just longing for the way things were, a repackaging of old templates for success, or change back to what the other side had been selling for decades.

The question thus isn’t how much have we changed but how much have we really evolved? The answer, unfortunately, is not much.

What this election has made me realize is the same thing I have talked about in business for more than a decade: all of us want change. Democrats and Republicans, millennials and baby boomers, white and diverse populations, managers and employees...every group wants change. But few of us know how or want to evolve.

Will a Trump presidency bring that evolution? I have no idea. Nobody knows. In my opinion, Trump was an extreme version of every politician. He did, said, and sold what he had to in order to get elected; it’s all words until he has to the power to enact something. What I do think the pundits get wrong though is that in many ways what Trump sold was not change or even fear. He sold doubt: Doubt in our institutions and leaders to do what needs to be done – disappointment and lack of trust in the establishment that people like James Comey validated.

Am I saying that is why Trump won? No, only that doubt can be a powerful tool for evolution depending on what we do with it. Will we use it to take responsibility ourselves to evolve moving forward? Not if we fail to turn the spotlight of accountability on ourselves and continue to have the wrong conversations about what evolution looks like.

Change and evolution require distinctly different mindsets. Change can be enabled by fear of others, distrust, and uncertainty. Change leads to substitution that slows progress down.

Evolution leads to reinvention and growth. But you can’t do that when divisiveness overpowers one’s ability to be open-minded. Division perpetuates silos and victimization. Evolution requires courage to embrace diversity of thought – a mindset that sees value in individuals and the ability to forge like-mindedness through our mosaic of differences rather than forge a melting pot of inauthentic and manufactured assimilation. Evolution requires us to look at our own responsibility to grow and influence the advancement of something that is in the best interest of a healthier whole.

Now don’t think this is where I make the call for us to embrace a progressive mindset. “Progressive” is not a word synonymous with “evolved,” especially in business. Look at the tech industry’s shock at the election result. Largely considered among the most progressive (and liberal, politically) companies in terms of their thinking and policies, many tech companies have disrupted the marketplace but repeatedly failed in the workplace when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Talk about living in a bubble.

What’s ironic is when it comes to the tech industry and indeed most businesses is most of them do value individuals in the marketplace. Individuals have been defining trends in the marketplace for years now. Yet those same individuals have felt little influence in the workplace and representation in the political establishments.

Truth is, people have felt smothered by our institutions that have stripped them of their identities for too long. Which is why it is my greatest hope this election is a call to reclaim our identities – for all of us to find paths to reinvention. Trump seems to be a master at reinvention. His past never caught up to him the way it did with Clinton.

What will he do with that? I do not know but, love him or hate him, he appears to have succeeded as an individual: The establishment rejected him so he is beholden to no one and no template of the past. What I hope for the sake of our deeply divided nation is that he evolves – that he rejects substitutional change that swings the pendulum back to the conservative side and evolves to point all of us towards reinvention.

The climate in this country is about reinvention, but we cannot reinvent through change alone. If America wants something truly different, we need to evolve and ask how do I evolve to be the change I seek? Doing that requires courage. And wisdom. And vulnerability. And one other thing that brings me back to our President-elect: Intimacy.

Some of you may call me crazy to use the word intimacy when it comes to Donald Trump, but here is a fundamental truth about the man and his candidacy: Love him, love Clinton, love someone else, or reject both, everyone feels they know Trump – who he is, what he stands for, and what he will do before he actually can do anything. From peaceful demonstrations to hateful graffiti to horrible incidents of violence that have filled our news feed the last week, it is clearer than ever that Trump’s campaign stoked fires on all sides – even those who did not vote.

Simply put, in the age of social media and polarizing punditry that tune out nuance, we are no longer intimate enough with anyone who doesn’t think, sound, or look like us. But where we can “unfollow” someone on Facebook who we don’t want to listen to, Donald Trump was in our faces 24-7 all of 2016 – everyone waiting to hear what he said next.

And now we are doing the same thing as he prepares to become our President. But before you go blaming others or the system for the result and yelling “not my President”... Before you stare with horror at the extreme incidences of violence and hate and thinking our country is going to hell... Realize that this election has laid bare the problems that have been there all along and we have never evolved to address – only changed to placate – and we are all responsible for that.

Let this election be a lesson for all of us, especially leaders in business, when it comes to moving forward: How we share and connect with people and our sometimes extreme differences is how we solve for a mindset of evolution together.

If there is anything that most people agree about this election it is that data can't solve for everything – we need to connect to see people again – to see our communities, businesses, country, and the world with circular vision. This is the time to step back and look around, beneath, and beyond what we thought we knew.

Our businesses, like our country, have been suffering from an identity crisis for too long. Evolving means accelerating our ability to turn around as people—from being victims of unexpected change without preparation to enlightened leaders that embrace a new mindset. I call this mindset the innovation mentality – a mindset that:

  • has the inspiration to see opportunity in everything and the flexibility to anticipate the unexpected
  • offers the freedom to unleash our passionate pursuits and the room to live with an entrepreneurial spirite
  • stablishes trust to work with a generous purpose and respect to lead to leave a legacy

That last point brings me back to intimacy and the most important question this election forces us to ask: What is the mark that you want to leave behind? If you were staring at a blank wall, what would you write on it that defines your role in the reinvention of America? What do you want our businesses and America to be like for our children? What do you want your legacy to be in business and in life?

Then, after your write it look around you – NOT on your social media feeds but at the people you need beside you in this reinvention process. What resources and relationships do you have? Are you associated with the right people? Are you becoming more diverse in your thinking or does everyone look and sound like you? Not even Donald Trump can go it alone anymore. He, like all of us, will need to create new and different relationships to truly evolve – not just change.

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