Democracy is messy, but demands respectful dialogue

To be effective, a leader must often explain the same issue, topic or decision over and over again, especially while interacting with different audiences. I find myself in this exact position during meetings with my executive team or larger administrative groups, in meetings with deans, department heads, supervisors, faculty, staff, students, or all of the above. I think it is important for a leader not only to listen to people respectfully, but also to provide them with as much information as needed, and as often as appropriate, to create consensus. This process is messy, but it is a characteristic of shared governance and democracy.

All the way back to ancient Greece, the Athenians knew that democracy was messy, but they believed it was the best way for people to govern themselves. Over the course of history, monarchs, tyrants, dictators and oligarchs often lose in the long run. Our democracy, on the other hand, just celebrated its 244th birthday. The strength of a democracy comes from its people, just like the strength of our university comes from its faculty, staff and students. The best universities use processes and governing bodies to capture ideas and insights from many perspectives and use them for the collective good.

One of the biggest challenges in a democracy, and in a university, is communication. Effective communication needs to be frequent, but not repetitive. It needs to be responsive and timely because events can change the world quickly and dramatically. Effective communication is a dialogue; therefore, people in a democratic endeavor have a responsibility to receive communications as well as to respond appropriately.

Open dialogue can create a shared understanding and sometimes even a shared purpose. This is why democracies are strongest when their people take an active part in the dialogue.

Here is where democracies get messy. These dialogues need to be consistent in messaging and respectful in tone. It is easy to be respectful to people you know and respect already, or to people who agree with you, or to those who respect you back; it is more challenging to respect people you know, but do not respect, or those who do not respect you. And it gets messier in dealing with people who hold different opinions, positions, beliefs, perspectives and attitudes than you do. But the heart of democracy is a shared conviction that we don’t have to agree in order to work together for a common cause, but we must be respectful of each other.

We have weathered difficult times over the past few months, and more challenging times are still ahead. The solutions we come to over the next few months as we deal with the pandemic, our financial situation and social unrest will be stronger if we can have a respectful dialogue. You have a voice – we need to hear it. We will listen.

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