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Nobody likes the smart kid in the class

Pictured are the members of the Leadership Gwinnett class of 2020.
Pictured are the members of the Leadership Gwinnett class of 2020.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

If you’ve ever been involved in any kind of corporate or leadership training, you’ve probably done something like this.

It was an ice-breaker exercise. One intended to set the tone for what needed to be tough, honest conversations over an entire weekend.

This one was called “Where Do You Stand?”

So the 42 members of the 2020 Leadership Gwinnett Class stood in the middle of a ballroom of a Lake Lanier hotel on day one of a three-day introductory retreat last summer. We were scurrying between four posts. Each indicated whether you agreed with, strongly agreed with, disagreed with or strongly disagreed with statements presented by a moderator.

It was revealing.

Among the statements:

  • Our country has not done enough to stem the tide of illegal immigration. Agree or disagree? Predictably, the room divided.
  • I would be OK if a low-income housing development was built near my home. Agree or disagree? The room divided again.
  • Georgia should legalize marijuana. Agree or disagree? Another question that split the room, though not in half as I recall.

The exercise delivered what was intended. We, the Leadership Gwinnett Class 2020, were a mess of contradictions and division. Republicans, Democrats and political agnostics. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. Just as intended.

So it was no surprise that we were a room divided.

Until we got to this statement: Our country has never been more divided than it is now. Agree? Strongly agree? Disagree? Strongly disagree?

We finally found some consensus.

Everyone either agreed with or strongly agreed with that statement.

Except me.

So 41 out of 42 people stood on one side of the ballroom. And I stood alone in opposition.

Well, those who agreed with the statement were made to explain.

And what I heard was alarm. Genuine alarm.

This cross-section of civic and business leaders in the most diverse county in Georgia — one of the most diverse in America — was convinced that we were living in the most toxic times in our nation’s history. America, some offered, was choking on Facebook-pushed conspiracy theories and Russian Tweets. And it’s difficult to make this experiment called America work, a few folks said, when our president had embraced the role of internet troll. And when cable news thrives on a formula that triggers and titillates and has us all inflamed, seemingly during each waking moment. We had become a nation of resentment, someone argued. Proof was our impasse on how to solve gun violence during a spate of mass shootings. Further proof is how we either defended or decried putting children in cages at the U.S. border, which, depending on your point of view was either a betrayal of our values or long-overdue toughness in a system that was too lenient and broken. Lots of stuff is broken, they said. We are broken.

Then I was made to explain myself.

So I did.

As a newspaper editor, I’m forced to live along our dividing lines. Today’s tensions, while troubling, do not, in my opinion, compare with the divisions in our nation during the Civil War. Or the civil rights movement. Or the Vietnam War.

It was the smart-kid-in-the-class answer.

And it was my “ah-ha” moment, which last week I had to talk about before my classmates as we graduated from the program.

For me, this moment crystalized a common failing among leaders. I realize now I was focused on whether the room was historically accurate. In embarrassing misreading. Rather, I should have been taking a moment to understand why 41 out of 42 people all thought we were hopelessly divided and headed down the wrong path.

I learned that day that the best leaders understand the calibration between head and heart and know, intuitively, when to apply each. When someone says they’re alarmed or hurting or feel excluded, we must listen. The last thing you should do in that situation is to make an academic argument about why their feelings might not be valid.

So nearly a year later I’m sitting at home, my movements restricted by a global pandemic. Atlanta is reeling from a spike in gun violence. Police morale is declining. Faith in the police has been shaken. Our children are in the streets demanding justice and demanding that we acknowledge — then fix — the racial disparities in the outcomes of our educational, economic and criminal justice systems.

And I am feeling some kinda way.

Just as I learned that day, now is not the time for an academic argument. Not about how many black suspects are shot in relation to white suspects and whether we really have a problem with race and policing. Neither is it time for lectures and history lessons on what protests should look like. Nor is it the time to tell folks who are feeling unsafe in Atlanta about historic violent crime rates and where the trend lines are.

Now is the time to listen. To understand. To act.

There are enough smartest kids in the class on social media. We don’t need any more of them.

What we need now are leaders confident enough to conduct honest conversations. And I’m here to listen.

Deputy Managing Editor Leroy Chapman Jr. is in charge of the reporting teams that cover local government, state government, politics, education and public safety. Email him at Leroy.Chapman@ajc.com. Follow him on Twitter @AJCLeroyChapman