This month I’m revisiting a post that was originally written in 2012 ahead of council elections in Victoria, Australia. With another, slightly larger, election imminent, I thought it might be worth revisiting with some appropriate adaptation.

The arrival of election day 2020 in the USA, with the whole world watching in various forms of anxiousness and fascination, has brought to mind for me some work we did some years ago with a city council.

It was a lesson in the way some leaders see themselves in relation to the rest of their organisation, jurisdiction or nation.

When it comes to electoral choice, there is an important distinction to be made between a candidate, their policies and the approach they take to the body to which they hope to be elected.

Our circumstance was that we worked with this particular council to support and guide them through some important organisational changes. A new strategic plan had been developed, and as part of that process an agreement was reached about the principles all employees and elected councillors would adhere to as they worked together to build the plan, and beyond. It was also agreed that these ways of behaving would not be compromised, regardless of the situation.

The principles they focused on were largely the sorts of things we associate with operating ‘above the line’ from an emotional health point of view. Things like avoiding blame, denial, defensiveness and self-justification.

To a large extent these principles were actively adhered to through the planning process. We saw situations in which it was felt that the conversation in a meeting dipped below the line, however this behaviour was flagged and the discussion pulled back on track.

However, adoption of these principles was not universal. Particularly when it came to the council chamber, a few of the elected councillors saw themselves as immune to all this talk of a shared approach. They argued that they had been elected to represent particular views in their wards, that they needed to remain independent and not become part of some ‘collective’ approach. It was important, they said, that they be able to ‘fight it out’.

And fight it out they did, frequently displaying all the ugliness of naming and shaming others, shouting abuse across the chamber, dismissing alternative opinions and approaches, and questioning the competence of fellow councillors and staff. In short, they drew on all the behaviours that had been agreed as inappropriate and ineffective in the previous discussion of principles.

What these few elected councillors didn’t seem to realise was that it is quite possible to maintain an individual perspective, hold to your particular views and have a good, robust debate without having to resort to ‘below the line’ behaviours.

It is quite possible to represent your electorate while maintaining an emotionally healthy approach to your dealings with others, including those who oppose you. The crux of emotional health is being present and fully engaged – it has nothing to do with automatic, unquestioned agreement with someone else’s point of view.

There is an interesting both…and scenario here.

I’ve written previously about the need to approach difficult issues by focusing on the issue, the situation, the behaviour and the impact, rather than on the individual. The point here is that individuals – elected leaders in my example – need to raise themselves above the issues they support, not allowing those issues to justify ‘below the line’ behaviour.

Perhaps we, as electors, need to do likewise when exercising the opportunity to vote. Perhaps, when choosing who to gift our vote to, we need to be focusing more on principles than promises, trusting that a group of emotionally healthy representatives will find the right answers, whatever they may be.


Photo by David Brewster