If you blinked you missed it, but yesterday Missouri Governor Jay Nixon gave the country one of the finest examples of leadership we have seen in a long time. If you run a business or any large organization where conflict occurs, it was a valuable learning moment.
Nixon traveled to Ferguson, Missouri and put an end to local law enforcement’s series of in-your-face militarized police response to both peaceful protests and destructive riots over the Saturday shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer. Nixon traveled to Ferguson, rounded up as many community leaders as he could find and started talking. The footage I saw on CNN (briefly, while waiting for a plane) showed Nixon talking not to the press but to the people around him, engaging, eye to eye, not hiding behind a podium and a phalanx of microphones.
Next, Nixon found a qualified African-American highway patrol captain, Ron Johnson, and put him in charge of security in the town. Then what Johnson did next was pitch perfect. He and a handful of black officers, sans body armor, took the streets—on foot—to talk and mingle, again, face to face.
A lot of courage, a little bit of humility and exactly the thing that was needed.
The shift in tension in the town has been evident since the change. The contrast could not have been greater between Nixon and Johnson’s actions and the hyper-militarized police response seen from local law enforcement such as Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, who railed against “outside agitators” as the instigators of the violence that has occurred there.
How often do so many people, like the Ferguson police chief, bow up and lash out when things go bad? The reaction is understandable, but completely wrong. The job of the leader in a crisis is to defuse the situation, not prove who is right and who isn’t. Logic doesn’t buy you much protection in a riot.
Did the new head of the security response in the town have to be African-American? No. Did he need to spend hours in the streets with his guys just talking. No? Yet by doing so he did more to end the chaos than he could have if he’d brought in the 101st Airborne.
Perhaps most important, Johnson and Nixon engaged the people of Ferguson on a personal level, showing both courage and openness. Shaking hands and politely listening to everybody, even if they’re not the most important or articulate people in the situation, did more than a hailstorm of rubber bullets and tear gas. How often do people in conflict, shout accusations at each other from a safe distance and never gain anything?
The next time some big conflict blows up in your business or organization you’d do well to remember the lessons of Ferguson. Get embattled parties to calm down first—justice and resolution can come later. Don’t hide in your office or behind intermediaries. Go to ground, eyeball to eyeball and ask questions, listen and don’t talk. Then and only then can you start to work on solutions.
Please pay attention America. That’s how it’s done. We need more Andy Griffiths and fewer Jack Bauers.