Colin Kaepernick – A Brief Case Study on Leadership

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I feel confident that just by mentioning the name “Colin Kaepernick” I’m stirring up a wide range of emotions across the reading public right now.  Kaepernick, a 49er quarterback, recently made a decision to use his very public football presence as a platform a few weeks ago.  He decided to sit during the national anthem as a way to draw attention to what he feels are racial injustices at play in our day.

Is he right?

Is racial injustice alive among us?

And if it is…was his response appropriate?

Interpretations and opinions around this run the gamut.  This weeks’ Time magazine has Keapernick on the cover.  The cover story reveals that the continuum from great support to death threats has been the response.  Whether we agree with Kaepernick and/or his actions – I hope you’ll admit that this is an interesting case study in leadership.  Specifically – how do you engage in trying to make progress/change on something you feel strongly about when little appears to be happening.

I’m going to go on record as saying that racial tension is alive and well among us in the USA these days.  Don’t laugh – I’m convinced that there are all kinds of interpretations about this.  We may not like it, we may feel that one group is to blame more than the other, we may feel that it’s an issue that has been swept under the rug for far too long or may even feel that it’s an issue that has been created by the liberal media and is really not an issue at all.  Wherever you may be – I’m going with the idea that this IS an issue and not only that – it is a red hot one.

In an era of name calling and blaming it would seem that our first response would be to blame someone.  Just start pointing fingers, defending “our side” and letting the chips fall where they may.  But if the quest is to make progress FOR ALL — then I’m not convinced that this option is the best one.

Whatever I personally feel about what is happening in this situation (and I do) I want to offer a couple of observations as it relates to leading in tough situations.  Why?  Because this story reminds us that acts of leadership have the potential to effect the progress of everyone.  And this particular season offers us a window into the correlation between our choices and the potential to help the entire system move forward.  Here goes.

First, although I don’t know for sure, it’s my understanding that Kaepernick’s “sit-down” was more than a whim.  He had actually been using social media as a means to share concerns about what he felt was social injustice.  The move to sit was his next-step at using the platforms at his disposal.  Now – I don’t know Colin Kaepernick – and honestly I may be giving him more credit than he deserves – but for the sake of our conversation I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt – that he actually thought about his actions before he did this.  He thought about the cost and he anticipated the probable fall out.  Whether he did or not – this is what leadership does.  It assesses the issue – not only at a head level but at a heart level.  It processes what an appropriate response might look like and then it unleashes an experiment.  Did it go the way he wanted it to go?  You’ll have to ask Colin about that.  But he did it.

Second, one thing that I gather from the details of the story is that Kaepernick decided to tweak his course of action after a dialogue with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who briefly played in the NFL.  After their interaction Kaepernick modified his protest from sitting to taking a knee during the national anthem.  So – why do you think he would do something like that?  Is it a sell out?  Is it hypocrisy?  Was it wise?

One thing I do feel deeply about is that leadership – real leadership – listens, assesses and modifies its actions when new data is revealed that demands a response.  I’m going to give Kaepernick credit for this one.  I’m going with the interpretation that after speaking with Boyer – he realized that even though he was committed to an intervention on the issue – a different action was needed to better convey his head and heart.  Was it the right one?  Once again – I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Let’s face it – this story is far from over but I do believe this – Kaepernick has succeeded (for the good or the bad) in raising the heat around an issue that is real.  What’s equally interesting is that this issue is far from the only one that deserves our attention these days.  What haunts me about all this is how much I tend to underestimate the sacrifices that are required in order to further the dialogue needed for change – change in my workplace, change in my neighborhood, change in my personal life….you name it.

Although the decision to intervene was not equally loved by all – Kaepernick DID intervene.  Not only that – he appeared to listen and tweak that intervention when he felt it was necessary to better communicate his intentions.  Remember, real leadership isn’t about the nobility of being right, it’s about the work involved with moving everyone toward a larger goal.

The Conclusion – We are not God…so what now?

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I really like a good podcast…and I heard one last weekend.  It was the TED Radio Hour and the title of it was called “Failure Is An Option” (July 29, 2016).**  For those of you who dig adaptive processing I encourage you to give it a listen.  There were many great points throughout the podcast but I want to focus on just one.

The middle section of the podcast is about Tim Harford an economist and author who did a TED Talk called “Trial, error and the God complex” in 2011.*  He begins the section by talking about the “God Complex.”  The way I understand it…the God Complex is about the belief/perception that every problem can be tied up into a nice little bow – succinctly and decisively solved by an expert.  In this paradigm of decision making the expert views himself/herself as “God” – having the ability to solve all manner of perplexing problem.  But the God complex isn’t just about them…it’s about all the non-experts who surround them.  These individuals support the complex by taking great comfort in the idea that the knowledgeable “God” person will be able to solve all of their problems.

Harford continues by suggesting that opposite the God Complex is a way of problem solving that has consistently tended to perform as well or better throughout history.  It’s called “Trial and Error.”  Surprised?!  I’m sure you’ve heard of it.  Generally speaking – it’s the idea that by testing many variations of solutions, bit by bit, progress can be made – progress that can lead to significant answers.

As Hartford extols the benefits of “Trial and Error” in his podcast he shares about times when he has been ridiculed for stating the obvious.  Everybody knows the benefits of trial and error – right?

He’s not convinced.

Check out his response to those who accuse him of making a big deal out of nothing…

”I will admit (trial and error) is obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don’t have a correct answer.  (When they) stop giving them lists of questions every single one of which has an answer and there’s an authority figure in the corner behind the teachers desk who knows all the answers and if you can’t find the answers you must be lazy or stupid.  When schools stop doing that all the time then I will admit that – yes –  it’s obvious that trial and error are a good thing.**

He continues…and this is the part that really grabbed me…

 When a politician stands up, campaigning for elected office, and says ‘I want to fix our health system, I want to fix our education system and I have no idea how to do it.  I’ve got a half a dozen ideas.  We’re going to test them out.  They’ll probably all fail.  Then we’ll test some other ideas out.  We’ll find some that work, build on those and get rid of the ones that don’t.’  When a politician campaigns on that platform – and more importantly when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician then I will admit that it is obvious that trial and error works.”**

Hmmmm.  I think I’ll leave us right there for now.

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*Tim Harford:  Trial, error and the God complex, http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_harford .

**TED Radio Hour, Failure Is An Option, July 29, 2016, http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/487606750/failure-is-an-option .