Walls and Bridges

It seems the political season starts earlier with each election cycle. As wearing as that may be for some people, and all partisan issues aside, it does provide interesting case studies in leadership styles and effectiveness. One observation that gets reinforced for me time and again . . . walls stir emotion and bridges get things done. Let me explain.

Walls (I’m talking figuratively here . . . absolutes, lines in the sand, “I will never” . . .) are great for fanning the flames of passion. They get the party faithful fired up and ready for battle. That is why you see so many walls being thrown up during primary season. Regardless of party, primary candidates tend to lean toward absolutes. The thing is, at the same time they are fanning the flames of passion for those who agree with their position, they are also fanning the flames of those opposed to the position. While that may make great political theater, in many cases it also creates additional barriers to achieving the very thing the candidate purports wanting to accomplish, because they start by focusing on points of opposition (walls) rather than points of agreement (bridges). Once the election is over, to make significant strides forward, people usually need to find a way to focus on common ground, and build bridges to connect differing perspectives. For bridge-builders, getting to the final destination is more important than taking one specific path to get there, even if that means taking down a few walls along the way.

So transfer those same concepts to your organization. I’m not necessarily saying walls are always bad — sometimes there truly is a non-negotiable — but there should be a lot more bridges than walls. Most of a leader’s energy should be focused on getting to the final destination, the mission. And if taking a slightly different route to get there allows more people to get on board and support your efforts, the mission probably benefits in the end. Yes it will take longer, and if your ego is invested in a particular route it may smart a bit, but focusing your energy on finding common ground and building bridges not only benefits the issue at hand, it also bolsters people’s confidence that they can trust you to listen to their voice moving forward. And with that type of synergy, leaders can build momentum over time to accomplish even more.

One caveat . . . this sounds easy enough when you read it in black and white, but it can be much harder when you are directly impacted by a specific situation. For example, when yet another unfunded mandate gets added to your contract expectations, it is much easier to focus on the negative impact to your organization and dig your heels in (a wall that says the funder is the bad guy/doesn’t care about the mission) than it is to stop and ask about the funder’s intended goal and see if there is another way to get there that you can live with. Will the diehard “walls” think you are weak or waffling? Maybe at first. But over time, it is hard to argue with how far you can get when you’re willing to build a few bridges.

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