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Leadership lessons from the U.S. presidential election

December 17, 2020
By Suanne Nielsen

In the early hours of Nov. 4 — after a night of uncertainty following the United States presidential election — my mood was one of utter disappointment.

For a while, it looked like 2016 was going to repeat itself, and the U.S. would continue to walk down a path of divisiveness, hate, mistrust and fear as fostered by its current administration.

As an American citizen living and working in Canada for the past four decades, I was worried for the future of our countries, yet confident in the resilience of their citizens.

The 2020 U.S. election has highlighted that the need for leaders everywhere to show up for their people when it’s the hardest has never been greater in our lifetime.


As people leaders, it’s up to human resources to speak against iniquities.

Our people are expecting their companies make a stand and take action on important environmental and social injustices such as racial and income inequality, human rights, climate change, systemic corruption and a plethora of other issues that need immediate attention.

There are some vital leadership lessons we can learn from the U.S. election:

Character matters

Some have said that the days are gone when people should “be nice and play fair.” I disagree.

In his victory speech, president-elect Joe Biden said, “Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency is on the ballot.”

He also quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying, “I’ve long talked about the battle for the soul of America… It’s time for our better angels to prevail.”

When leaders put the best interests of a country or an organization ahead of personal agendas, they will win.

With character comes trust

Last January, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer stated that, “despite a strong global economy and near full employment, none of the four societal institutions that the study measures — government, business, NGOs and media — is trusted. The cause of this paradox can be found in people’s fears about the future and their role in it, which are a wake-up call for our institutions to embrace a new way of effectively building trust: balancing competence with ethical behaviour.”

The study goes on to find that “government, more than any institution, is seen as least fair; 57 per cent of the general population say government serves the interest of only the few, while 30 per cent say government serves the interests of everyone.”

With trust in government and news media at an all-time low, people’s trust in employers during the current pandemic is increasing.

HR leaders have a role in rising above the noise and helping their organizations in taking a stand.

There is a significant opportunity for organizations to help solve income inequality that governments have not addressed through re-training.

There are actions we can take to rid our organizations of systemic racism.

Where are your people getting their information?

Nowadays, social media appears to be the leading source of information.

However, social media curates content based on users’ preferences. It tells us what we want to hear and shows us what we want to see.

When we search for likeminded views, we get likeminded views. When we search for opposing views, we get both sides of an argument and uncover facts — not fake news, not exaggerations.

In elections and organizations, great leaders welcome diverse and dissenting views, ferret out the truth, challenge one another and even have a respectful fight now and then.

Listen to the dissenters

What can we learn from the 74 million voters who voted for the current and outgoing U.S. president? What can we learn from those who disagree in our organizations?

By embracing differing viewpoints, we can create better than we ever imagined.

Let’s consider if organizations worked like governments, where leaders needed to be elected after a specified term. In such a scenario, leaders would focus more on what would earn them votes rather than what is best for the long-term success of the organization, its people and its customers. This is not a sustainable strategy.

The United States saw record voter turnouts for the 2020 election. It tells us that people felt strongly. They needed to be heard.

The closest we have to this in organizations is employee engagement surveys. Through these vehicles, we test levels of employee engagement.

People say more with their votes and surveys than they would face-to-face. This is largely due to the power imbalance that discourages employees from breaking their silence.

Engagement surveys allow employees to have an anonymous voice. Leaders need to focus less on the scores, and more on what people are trying to tell us, even if they are dissenting.

Through engagement surveys, leaders can tap into the employee voice needed to make critical organizational changes that can foster workplace well-being.

Welcome an incumbent leader

Often in organizations, internal CEO candidates compete, and/or an external CEO candidate emerges on top. Meanwhile, factions develop around candidates.

However, once the decision is made and a new leader is appointed, existing and outgoing leaders need to accept the decision and put their differences aside.

Giving the new leader support of an executive team paves the way for a peaceful and efficient transition of leadership and responsibilities. To do anything else will result in chaos and dysfunction.

The biggest lesson from the U.S. presidential election is that it is up to each of us as individuals and leaders to exercise our voice.

Fear is not a reason to vote, nor is it a reason to check out of organizations.

Suanne Nielsen (she/her) is the national president of SCNetwork. She is a Canadian permanent resident and a U.S. citizen (Canadian citizenship pending).

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