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Leadership Lessons from the Ted Cruz Debacle

Republican National Convention: Day ThreeRepublican National Convention: Day Three
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivers a speech on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Chip Somodevilla — Getty Images

You have to admit it takes a certain amount of guts to walk into a someone else’s party, hog the spotlight, eat the snacks, insult the host and leave. But that’s pretty much what Senator Ted Cruz did last night at the Republican National Convention.

Ted Cruz sucked all the oxygen out of the convention last night, drawing boos and jeers as he congratulated, but failed to endorse, the nominee, Donald Trump. His parting advice to “vote your conscience!” made one state Republican party chair so angry, he had to be restrained afterward. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called it an “awful, selfish speech.”

But Cruz’s dilemma – if you embrace the most generous possible interpretation of his behavior – mirrors that of many other U.S. voters, who might be attracted to a Republican candidate, just not one who is perceived as throwing around racist, sexist and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

What to do when someone you care about is willing to overlook positions on issues and may even hold views that you consider unthinkable?

“My mother is voting for Trump,” one executive told me yesterday, already dreading every family get-together from now until the election.

What if it’s your boss? Your direct report?

Two great pieces of advice I’ve collected over the past few months might help keep families and teams intact. Bottom line: Don’t do what Cruz did. Instead, ask good questions and listen to the answers.

The 2016 Republican National Convention
A delegate holds a campaign sign for Senator Ted Cruz. Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg Bloomberg via Getty Images

Alison Davis-Blake, a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says that times of emotional turmoil are opportunities for smart organizations to check in with themselves. “Think about this election season; think about life post-Brexit,” she says. “Issues of race, ethnicity and national origin are at the forefront and will be for some time.”


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Time for a check in

Now is a time to check in with employee resource and other affinity groups for an update. What are they hearing? What issues are coming up? Do they have enough resources?

Surveys, done regularly, can help. “If you’re trying to create a compassionate organization where everyone can bring their full selves to work, asking smart questions can yield really useful information about how people are actually faring,” she says.

Encourage talk.

Research co-authored by Harvard’s Frank Dobbin, chair of the joint Arts & Sciences/Harvard Business School Organizational Behavior doctoral program, clearly shows what’s effective when it comes to fostering an inclusive environment. What works? Talking.

Systems like diversity task forces and mentorship programs, which engage mostly white managers in conversations about diversity as they relate to business goals (not politics), tend to help people understand the issues associated with race in a more personal way.

“Working with someone you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter tends to be revealing for everyone,” but specifically for leadership, says Dobbin. “Like, ‘wow, I had no idea this company was toxic for African Americans.’” Smart companies design systems that help people talk about race in productive and respectful ways. “It’s important to remember that the psychological research shows the worst thing you can do in the workplace is never talk about race and gender,” he says.


When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.