Collaboration: Idealism or Pragmatism?

I was fortunate to a attend a breakfast meeting last week with John Siegenthaler, the former editor of the Nashville Tennessean and founding editor of the USA Today newspaper. His topic was leadership lessons which arise out of failure.

John is noted for his courageous work in the tumultuous civil rights culture of the 60’s in the South. Among many other notable accomplishments, John was an assistant to Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General in the John (Jack) F. Kennedy presidential administration. Of these two famous brothers, John Seigenthaler said Jack Kennedy was the idealist and Bobbie the pragmatist. Jack’s visionary ideals of an improved society could be accomplished only by the hard nosed use of strategic legal tools wielded effectively by Bobby.

In support of the Freedom Riders’ efforts to desegregate lunch counters through out the South, Bobby dispatched Seigenthaler to Alabama to extract the freedom riders from the jails and hospitals of Montgomery following a brutal attack by a mob who burned their bus and savagely beat the civil rights activists. John was severely injured when he attempted to rescue one of the freedom riders.

Although heroism was attributed to John for his actions in that heated climate, he indicated that he felt more a failure than courageous. He blamed himself for his inability to bring reason to mob mentality, to convince Alabama governor Patterson to protect the freedom riders and change the culture of violence. His sense of failure in this moment shaped his character and work to follow.

John spoke further of his concern about the state of journalism today in which the media appears to take partisan positions and fails to engender transformative dialogue about matters of consequence. In his view, partisanship, or positional posturing serves as a sign of declining civility and the ineffectual nature of the fifth estate. He recalled wistfully the role of journalism in prior conflicted eras, like the civil rights environment of the 60’s. In his view, principled journalism fosters respectful inquiry, factual development and facilitates the exploration of creative responses. In contrast, blind partisanship merely escalates the conflict without providing avenues of solution. It takes both idealism and pragmatism to engender the collaborative environment out of which creative solutions can be developed and implemented.

A few weeks ago, Randy Lowry and I were asked to facilitate a retreat of a state legislative coalition in advance of the state’s legislative session. I had my doubts that we could break through the partisan mindset of elected state officials. in contrast, what we both discovered was that these officials were as hungry for training and experience in collaborative outcomes as doctors, nurses, lawyers and accountants. At the end of the retreat, they were asking for more training and requested greater involvement by facilitative leaders in legislative development and skill building.

Our time with the legislators and the recognized power of collaboration and consensus building reminds us that these practical skills are the creative place where idealism and pragmatism meet. Partisan positioning severely limits the ability of people to create new solutions, devise innovative outcomes and develop mutually beneficial results.

We are infinitely more capable than people who merely reduce problem solving to declaring the loudest voice the winner and relegating great ideas to the waste bin of trivialized losers.

Let’s be enthusiastically idealistic pragmatists and pursue the power of collaboration.

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