The exploitation of social media by the Obama campaign has reverberations across generations. Two Republican Congressmen (Pence, Cantor) remarked on the phenomena on the Sunday following the 4 Nov election. Paraphrasing: We must use this media to reach out to young people, get them our message, explain where we want to take this country.
That sounded noble, but I found myself straining to hear something else: “we will listen to the people.”
I never heard it. The more I listened to representatives and spokespeople for the opposition party, the more I was struck by the absence of an eagerness to hear. They appear eager to learn how they can reach the organized masses who turned out for the Democratic ticket, but only in terms of how they can broadcast their message to them. I don’t hear any indication that listening is part of the magic.
This difference may be profound, I don’t know. One party speaks of principles in governing, while the other has imperatives gained from observing what people need. The first defines leadership by sticking to proven policy principles, the second defines it as steering government through challenge and opportunity. The first proactive, the second reactive. The first accuses the other of lacking principles, and in this election tried mightily to scare Americans into thinking that Obama in fact had hidden principles and an agenda at odds with “real” Americans. The second accuses the first of sticking to principles that are in fact not natural laws, which got us into an ill-advised war and deregulation, and which are disconnected from the needs of the American people.
Both approaches are disastrous in the extreme. The second leads to citizens voting themselves cash from the public till, while the first leads to oppression as minority voices are marginalized and principles trump understanding.
The seismic shift this election? Those “proven” principles did not ensure success. The belief that “spreading” Democracy would be welcomed by allies and weak states did not prove warranted. The conviction that relatively unfettered markets would strive for harmony and equilibrium fell victim to the Tragedy of the Commons and basic human nature. Finally, the Bush presidency was subject to a series of challenges for which it was demonstrably less than capable.
The Moment, for me, came during the extraordinary session where the President, the candidates, and Congressional leaders came to the same table to discuss drastic measures to address the financial crisis in October. Mr. Obama, at ease in sessions where principles are applied to situations and learning results – sat in stark contrast with Mr. McCain, who had nothing to offer. McCain’s presence was simply to be the symbol that would rally House Republicans. (Perhaps fatal to his candidacy, they did not stand with him.) The awkward moment: when Mr. Obama leaned over to address his rival. “What do you think, John?” No response. Mr. McCain wasn’t there to listen, to advise, or even hear.
Mr. Obama was there to aid in governing. The application of principles with a feedback loop so that learning can occur. “What works?” is the central question of the inquiring mind.
In organizational learning circles, this inquiry is a hallmark of some learning styles, defined as Single, Double, and Triple Loop:
• Single Loop describes a condition, often referred to as a thermostat, in which an organization holds stable goals and adjusts its behaviors to achieve those goals.
• Double Loop describes a condition in which new factors or experiences can change the organizational goals—and the organization adjusts its behaviors to achieve them.
• Triple Loop describes a condition in which the organization manages changeable goals—changing ways and means iteratively—and builds upon them, doing so in part by changing the organization itself in response to these requirements.
[Chris Argyris, “Single-Loop and Double-Loop Models in Research on Decision-Making,” Administrative Science Quarterly 21 (1976) & A. Georges L. Romme and Arjen van Witteloostuijn, “Circular Organizing and Triple Loop Learning,” Journal of Organizational Change Management 12.5 (1999).]
The first party would do well to consider moving from Single Loop learning, and develop the ability to learn rather than present themselves as guardians of timeless governing principles.
And the second party, flush with victory, best not forget that they won on a principle of listening, inquiry, and competent yet participative government.