How to Use the Charleston Approach to Be a Better Leader

“After that first finger was pointed, the meeting went downhill fast,” said an exasperated friend as she recounted an awful day at work. “It was like everyone was in a race to the bottom. What hateful things were said as they threw one another under the bus. I just wanted to disappear.”

Too bad, I thought while listening to her pain, that no one stepped up to stop the downward spiral by using the “Charleston approach.”

It's a Choice

Choosing to act with grace, curiosity, appreciation, and kindness what I call the “Charleston approach.”

Leading a team, department, division, or an entire company is taxing work—yet it’s work that, in my opinion, pales beside speaking to someone who has killed a loved one. Living here in Charleston, SC and seeing the Emanuel nine family members rise above censure under such tragic and trying circumstances filled with me with hope for leaders everywhere. The big lesson I’ve learned over the last year is that if one chooses, the grace of goodness can transcend polarization.

Leadership is both something you are and something you do. ~ Fred Smith, founder Fed-Ex

Ending the "isms" that divide us

“I’m right, you’re wrong” reasoning gives rise to mistrust and fuels the “isms”—racism, sexism, ageism, and the like—that divide us unnecessarily.

Cloaking ourselves in our rightness and pointing out the wrongness of being or thinking differently builds walls, not connections that serve a greater good. In a world where the six degrees of separation have become four, isn’t now the time to replace mean-spirited gut reactions with constructive curiosity, compassion, and a skosh of vulnerability?

Leadership that starts by understanding one another, by seeing each other, requires a sort of slowing down, of paying attention, of presence. ~ Jacqueline Novogratz, founder Acumen

Putting the Charleston Approach to Work

Being mean and lashing out is easy; choosing to use the Charleston approach is hard, as are most worthwhile things. The Charleston approach involves self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-control, and open-mindedness:

  • To be eternally vigilant in assessing if our beliefs have hardened into dogma. When we’re no longer open to considering what others have to say because we know our position is the true one, we’re putting our lack of skill in doubting on display.
  • To be mindful of the degree of our skepticism. Being inclined to inquire is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we are unable to believe anything.
  • To willingly seek out both the hidden flaws and virtues that lurk in our blind spots and embedded preferences and to be gentle with others regarding theirs.

Our brains are powerful, and our hearts large. If we choose, we can replace unfounded judgment, liberals are idiots, you-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about, and feminists are bad, with curiosity, perhaps there’s something to be learned from their point of view. In choosing to make this shift, we let go of the absolute “rightness” of our position, make room for ambiguity and paradox, and exchange automatic rejection based on selective facts for openness.

We choose to think big, not small.

Be the water

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox:  what is soft is strong. ~ Lao Tzu, philosopher

To begin ending those “-isms” that divide us, we have to resist being the rock—anger, judgment and harshness aren’t the answer. By being the water, we can:

  • Bridge the distance between races, sexes, and generations in a world primed to respond with bias and ill will.
  • Celebrate the power and possibility spawned by distinctions in thought, opinion, and perspective.
  • Engage in courageous-yet-respectful conversations using our heads to manage and our hearts to lead.

If I had enough Charleston approach pixie dust and angels to spread it, we’d sprinkle it liberally to put an end everywhere to harmful polarization. Ready to scatter some in your corner of the world?

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