A few weeks ago Hillary Clinton said that we should “Make America Whole.” She may have said it as an aside, just as a contrast to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” but it actually encapsulates an ethos of leadership both deeply rooted in the American political tradition and central to the future of both our country and the corporate world.
While it might have seemed to be just another in a long line of ephemeral political slogans, if applied to its logical conclusion, it could bring about a different model for governing and a way out of the destructive polarization of American politics.
To make “whole” suggests the country is now in pieces and needs to be brought back together. And Clinton is right – we’re not only polarized to the point of frequent paralysis, but the mass movements for Trump and Bernie Sanders can be seen as a reaction to our divided and paralyzed body politic, giving voice to those who are massively frustrated by it. Part of Trump and Sanders’ subtext is that they will put their own country over their political party, even if it may mean excluding those who disagree with them.
By contrast, Clinton’s appeal to wholeness is more reminiscent of the motto on the Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1782 by the Founding Fathers: E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “Out of many, one.” The motto captures much of our nation’s exceptionalism and greatness – coming together despite our great differences.
Like Clinton’s “make whole” slogan, E Pluribus Unummakes listening, two-way dialogue, thoughtful engagement and collaboration, especially with your political opponents, as its paramount value. Under this leadership ethos, politicians build coalitions and mutually supportive relationships with all stakeholders -ally or competitor, empowered and disempowered. Together, we would enlist in a journey of true greatness and enduring significance.
Almost 250 years after our nation’s founding, this ethos is more relevant than ever. In our hyper-connected, highly transparent and entirely interdependent world, where we all fall and rise together, it’s the only style of leadership that makes sense for the long-term success of any organization – or country.
No doubt this is not entirely what Clinton had in mind when she tossed off “Make America Whole.” Her campaign, after all, is still dominated by the business-as-usual questions of policy that continue to divide America. And her policy-first approach is working for her, at least politically. Her many different policies appeal to different constituencies and when knit together, these constituencies look likely to give her the Democratic nomination and the presidency. But the country’s political polarization, which has lately encouraged paralysis and even extremism, would continue unabated.
So, let’s pause for a moment, given the stakes, and as a thought experiment, consider how a true E Pluribis Unum presidency might look for Clinton (or anyone else.). This approach to leadership – rising above specific policies and focusing instead on creating a transcendent ethos – has enormous power. Instead of focusing just on what policy should prevail, an E Pluribus Unum leader will focus on how a policy choice gets made, guided by a collective ethos of fairness, inclusiveness, and elevated behavior. The nation would be invited and inspired as a whole – Democrat and Republican – toenlist in a collective journey. The role of the leaders is to listen, connect and collaborate, and not to make their voice bigger than anyone else’s.
Quite to the contrary, an E Plutibus Unum leader make themselves small, leaving room for others to do astounding things. Challenged to engage in an ongoing journey of significance and to come together in a depoliticized and transparent manner, the likely outcome is that Democrats and Republicans would rise to the occasion, and resulting solutions to our nation’s intractable problems would not only be better than partisan proposals, they’d also be trusted.
There is historical precedent. When it came time for George Washington to choose his cabinet, and the great question of the day was state’s rights versus a strong central government, Washington chose both states-rights advocate Thomas Jefferson and strong central government advocate Alexander Hamilton. Far more important than any specific policy he chose was Washington’s role as a great unifier for the fragile young nation. He made history with his leadership and it helped keep the country from splintering.
Think how monumental – indeed, truly historic – it would be if Clinton did the same thing, manifesting an almost unprecedented degree of unified government – and an ethos of how, without regard to politics, as a salve to our extreme polarization. That Clintonchose to do it, knowing she could probably win even without it – would make such a decision even more impactful and historic.
She could start by choosing a prominent Republican, like John Kasich, as her vice president, as some have suggested. After all, Kasich reached across the aisle just recently by saying he could also see nominating President Obama’s Supreme Court pick, Judge Merrick Garland.
Clinton could also pledge to name a cabinet that will be composed half of Democrats and half of Republicans. It would be extremely Washingtonian of her, in the very best sense of what Washingtonian used to mean.
Beyond these choices, Clinton would need to make a strong and lasting commitment to an E Pluribus Unum ethos. The aim of this leadership ethos is not to be whole just for the sake of being whole. In a journey of true significance, we are inspired to do great things, both individually in the pursuit of happiness and collectively, to meet the challenges of our nation.
In this thought experiment, instead of just voting for the candidate whose policies we support, the country could vote on the kind of leadership ethos we want and respect most. Unity, as the electorate would come to understand, is far more than symbolic. Once in the grip of elevated behavior, people are far more likely to innovate and come up with good answers to difficult problems. Unity that leads to trust, which in turn leads to hard work, innovation and achievement – inspiring even more unity. It’s a virtuous circle. The power of being truly unified, whether as a country or company, is that it inspires people not just to reach common ground, but higher ground.
Our greatness as a nation lies in when we come together – our diversity is our strength. If we can find a leader who makes it possible for us to do so, then instead of occupying ourselves with infighting, we could continue on the great journey to making a more perfect union.
Dov Seidman is the chief executive of LRN, a company that helps corporations develop values-based cultures and leadership, strengthen their ethics and compliance efforts. He is also the author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything.