When It Comes To Integrity, “Playing Nice” Shouldn’t Mean Giving Up What You Stand For

Leadership Lesson: In order to remain as honest as possible, save time for all parties involved, and retain one’s integrity, it’s important to let others know when you disagree with them, even when it’s with a silent gesture.

At the U.S. Capitol memorial service for Representative Elijah Cummings, who died last week and who was revered by both sides of the aisle for his leadership over the course of his more than twenty years in the House of Representatives, one of his pallbearers, as he made his way through the receiving line of bipartisan congressional leaders, snubbed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s handshake.

Check out the clip below.

I love this. I absolutely love this. (OK. Maybe I don’t love it. Maybe that’s too strong of a word. But it’s definitely refreshing to see.) And I don’t say that for partisan or political reasons. If the shoe were on the other foot, I would still applaud it just as much.

But why, John, would you condone such rude behavior, especially as it takes place at the memorial service of such a respected and beloved political figure?

I’m glad you asked. Let me explain.

People may see the gesture – or lack thereof — as rude. They may view it as a sign of the times. They may label it as a reflection of everything that’s wrong in society today.

But it’s not. Not at all. If anything, it’s what society needs right now more than ever – civil disagreement.

The pallbearer respects his relationships, even when he doesn’t respect the man in front of him. The honesty displayed to McConnell, in and of itself, should be viewed as respect. The pallbearer is not lying, playing a part or putting up a facade. Disrespect, on the other hand (no pun intended), would be suppressing true feelings, shaking a hand and feigning warm regard.

Some people may also say He should have been the bigger person. Let’s be honest, though, being the bigger person isn’t rooted necessarily in a change of feelings. It’s not necessarily genuine. It’s oftentimes a facade to appease others who are watching and to save face. It’s probably settling for what you don’t agree with so that the boat isn’t rocked. How often do the feelings of the party who is the “bigger person” really change, becoming completely agreeable to the other party?

If the pallbearer had shaken the hand, people would have thought everything was OK, and his disagreement and discontent with McConnell would never be known. If that’s really being the bigger person, what does that really get you in the end as you play for the cameras?

I mean, how often have you seen it in political photo opportunities? The political figures get along for the sake of the cameras and then go back to cutting each other down and trying to build distrust of the other side.

What a crock.

As it played out here, though, the pallbearer shows how he feels. Now, there’s absolutely no doubt where that relationship stands.

And it’s not that these two men will necessarily ever see each other or interact again, but a statement was made.

Your political world may be one of tactics and strategy, but in the real world, every moment counts — and in every moment you are held accountable.

I like that the snub-seen-’round-the-world is a wake-up call to all of us for how we communicate with each other.

When we interact with each other, it’s as if to say…

…Show me who you are and how you feel, because you owe it to yourself and to me to express fully what you need as a basic standard of quality in your life, work, and relationships.

…Show me in a manner that’s honest, where you express truly how you feel.

…Show me your integrity, where you don’t care what the usual decorum is for disagreement, especially if the script suggests you suppress any bad or uncomfortable feelings. (Burn the script.)

…Show me in a civil manner, where you don’t have to get up in my face, emotionally yelling a blistering diatribe of anger and/or profanity, but instead make your points, disagreements, and concerns known in a logical, organized manner.

Related: How Far Can Your Empathy and Understanding Take You?

So, going back to “your” question… But why, John, would you condone such rude behavior, especially as it takes place at the memorial service of such a respected and beloved political figure?

First, it isn’t rude. He’s being honest. Being fake to others, even if others don’t realize it or see it, is more undermining than being honest, even if that honesty doesn’t look pretty.

Disagreement and differences are never the problem. The problem is always how they’re expressed and communicated. That’s why I respect this case: the simplicity and subtlety with which the disagreement was expressed is an improvement over what we’ve seen lately in national politics.

Second, Cummings, with his own history of civil rights advocacy, probably would’ve respected his pallbearer’s action because, although it displayed a powerful and loud message, it was peaceful and civil in delivery.

Finally, it was an amazing display of integrity, carrying out the gesture in such a public forum. You’re not compromising your values for anyone else. Yes, this sounds counter-intuitive to what most of us may believe is proper, because we’ve been programmed the wrong way. We’ve been programmed to believe that you always have to “play nice.” And you should. But “playing nice” doesn’t mean giving up who you are or what you stand for.

(Note: “Playing nice” isn’t that you can’t disagree but it’s about how you disagree. We’ve been programmed to keep the interaction as positive and as sunny as possible no matter what. Meanwhile, frustration, tension, and contempt are possibly bubbling up and ready to boil over internally. Where does that really get anyone? Nowhere. )

And how does this apply to leadership development? It’s about honesty, integrity, and respect.

Too often, when leaders suffer in their role, whether it is one of official capacity or not, it is because they try to play nice for too long. They try to placate the other side. They don’t speak up about terms or circumstances that don’t work for them. They kick the can of uncomfortable conversations down the road. They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to seem as standoffish in holding other people (even civilly) to account.

I’m not saying the pallbearer’s approach is how everyone should protest what they don’t agree with. McConnell and the pallbearer probably won’t cross paths again. But for the rest of us, even when we do make our disappointment or disagreement known, we all have the responsibility to reach out to the other side and explain the circumstances with which we take issue.

Related: Can You Find The Middle Ground Between You and Your Opponent?

This is exactly what the country needs to see right now.

No, seriously.

This was an expression of true feelings…conveyed through silent and/or civil protest…for all to see…when it counted most. You know exactly where the pallbearer stands. He wasn’t being disrespectful. If anything, he respects immensely the power of his interactions with others. He’s keeping people accountable.

Compare that to most of the political debates and disagreements we’ve witnessed at the national level.

It’s better to let your disagreement be known in a peaceful manner than to lie to others and harbor ill will.

It can be an uncomfortable thought for most: How will my keeping to my values be seen by others if it doesn’t follow the expected script?

That’s an easy one: Burn the script.


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