Joe Biden has won acclaim for bringing California senator Kamala Harris onboard as his vice-presidential running mate, despite her criticism of him during the Democrats’ nomination process, where she stood as a rival.
In an essay on Medium, Canadian lawyer and entrepreneur Rachel Sklar writes: “There are many reasons why choosing Kamala Harris – a former prosecutor, a senator, and a Black woman with the ability to connect to a youthful demographic – was a smart move at this moment in 2020.
“But hiring his former rival – an outspoken opponent who has criticised him harshly – as his running mate was also a brave move. It’s a good example for all of us, especially if we ever find ourselves in the position of having to hire a team.”
She notes: “Strong leadership takes many forms, and this kind of risk taking is one of them. Is it comfortable to elevate your harshest critic? Probably not! Is it going to make you better, and make your team better, and get you to your goal faster? Almost certainly. It’s a bold move with key leadership lessons for all of us.” (Sklar, via Medium, 13 August 2020)
The criticism to which Sklar refers emerged during the first Democratic primary debate back in June, wherein Harris drew attention to Biden’s decision in the 1970s to work with two, segregationist senators who opposed bussing schemes designed to desegregate schools.
At a key point in the debate, Harris declared: “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day and that little girl was me. So, I will tell you that [race] cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously.” (Snopes, 12 August 2020)
Democrat observers have noted that it was “difficult to overstate the bad blood that flowed” between the Harris and Biden camps in the wake of that debate.
However, in light of Biden’s decision to pick Harris for his Presidential ticket, Sklar writes: “Nothing signals confidence, boldness, and mission-over-ego more than bringing your rivals into your inner circle. Only a weak leader would pass up the best and brightest for a yes-man or a sycophant or a (cough) woefully unqualified family member. Biden’s pick of his former rival shows a willingness to drop the ego and go with the best candidate.”
Is Sklar correct in her assessment – and if so, how can rivals who choose to collaborate manage mutual criticism and channel it into shared purpose?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Successful leadership teams need diverse viewpoints. But what they also need is a high level of professional respect between everyone involved – plus equally high levels of trust and personal integrity.
“So in that context, there’s a world of difference between a) welcoming someone into your team because you know their worldview is quite different to yours, and they’ll add that crucial, alternative perspective which we all know makes for better decisions, and b) bringing in someone who you don’t trust anyway, regardless of your differences.”
Cooper notes: “I’m reminded here of the words of Peter Drucker, who essentially said – and I’m paraphrasing a little – that it’s a leadership imperative to build relationships. And while that doesn’t necessarily mean liking people, it does mean trusting people. That’s the lesson to draw from the Biden-Harris pact: that if you’re going to welcome critics into your team, which is a good thing to do, then you owe each other a huge amount of respect.”
She adds: “If you don’t trust that critical team member, their contribution – however diverse or different – is going to be far less impactful than if they’re someone you truly value. In many ways, that respect is key to you appreciating the wisdom of those differences.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on critical reflection
Image of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris courtesy of the Joe Biden Campaign website