We’re living in a world where some of the people we consider most “difficult” are those who see the world differently.
We often do our best to sideline, marginalize, and avoid those people who frustrate and annoy us. We manage around them and secretly pray they’ll pursue a job with another organization. And through social media, we unfollow, block, mute, and hide their content, so we don’t have to be confronted with it on a daily basis.
Here’s the problem, though. The way we respond to people who are opposed to our ideas isn’t working. The world doesn’t get better when we tune out contrary voices and opposing opinions. Echo chambers don’t make a better world.
Therefore, the most foolish thing any of us can do is to keep doing what isn’t working, even when we know it isn’t working.
Learning from Lincoln and His Team of Rivals
If you have someone who is difficult in your life at work, if someone who sees the world differently just drives you insane, then maybe you could take a page from the life of Abraham Lincoln.
When Lincoln stunned the country with his victory in the Presidential election of 1860, he added surprise to an astonished nation by appointing the three candidates he defeated to his cabinet.
Upon receiving a question about this abnormal move, Lincoln replied, “Look, these are the strongest and most able men in the country. The country is in peril. I need them by my side.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicled Lincoln’s unorthodox strategy in her epic book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
In her TED talk, Learning from Past Presidents, Goodwin described how Lincoln surprised those who believed he would look like a figurehead compared to more educated, experienced, and celebrated rivals.
“It soon became clear that Abraham Lincoln would emerge as the undisputed captain of this unruly team. For each of them soon came to understand that he possessed an unparalleled array of emotional strengths and political skills that proved far more important than the thinness of his external résumé. For one thing, he possessed an uncanny ability to empathize with and to think about other people’s point of view. He repaired injured feelings that might have escalated into permanent hostility. He shared credit with ease, assumed responsibility for the failure of his subordinates, constantly acknowledged his errors and learned from his mistakes.”
Goodwin cites Lincoln’s humility, empathy, peacemaking, extreme ownership, and respect for his rivals as the secrets to his success in building a coalition of leaders others might have viewed as too difficult.
Easier for You or Better for Them?
For the last couple of months, Thin Difference has been exploring the theme of Difficult People. My fellow contributors here have shared compelling content which I’ve benefited from greatly.
Zach Morgan encouraged us to avoid playing games, and Molly Page called us to avoid the temptation to have the last word in an argument. Jeremy Chandler used juggling to illustrate the need to grow as communicators, and Maya James pointed out that we’re often the difficult people others are struggling to manage.
But, as I listened to Goodwin describe Lincoln (and as I longed for political leaders today to learn from Lincoln’s example), I felt a tinge of what I’d call “conviction.” Conviction is my word for the feeling we get when we realize that we’ve been looking out the window at other people’s problems and avoiding looking in the mirror at our own.
The example of Lincoln convicted me and here’s what it sounded like in my head.
“What if your approach to difficult people has been whatever makes your life easier instead of whatever makes the lives of the people you lead better?”
Too often, my approach to difficult people has been about selfishness rather than selflessness. And any leader who cares about themselves more than those he or she leads is dangerous.
Leadership guru Patrick Lencioni once said, “If it’s not servant leadership, then it’s just economics.” When I read Lincoln’s rationale for giving his rivals a literal seat at the table, I see a selflessness which embraces a path which makes day-to-day leadership more difficult for him but better for the country.
Some difficult people have nefarious intentions and are toxic to those around them. They need to be expelled from the organization from the good of the whole.
But, other difficult people need to be drawn in, not pushed away. Because there are people in peril. And we need the strongest, most able-bodied men and women in the fight with us.
If we’re going to lead in these challenging times, then we’re going to need to bring people who see differently than us to the table, embrace the difficulty of working together, and develop the character needed to lead as Lincoln did.