Being the adult in the room

It was saddening to see the video going viral of various heads of state supposedly mocking President Trump during the recent NATO meeting.  Whilst I am no fan of Trump’s policies and behaviour, it saddens me to see leaders that profess to lead from the higher moral ground should debase themselves in mocking the behaviour of another, no matter how repellent we find that person.

Where is the integrity in leadership today?  Where is that higher standard that raises each one of us instead of pulling the ‘other’ down?  It can be hard in the world we live in today to value the importance of integrity, respect and principled behaviour and to make a stand for it when needed.  But in these troubled times it is the only way forward.

It has been common to make the excuse that our changing times throw out all the old models of ‘the right thing to do’, to be replaced by a relative sense of what is right or wrong.  We justify a moral vacuum on the false premise that tolerance and open-mindedness necessitate a letting go of hidebound principles from the past.  Or, worse still, we believe that bad behaviour justifies an equal and opposite response.  Like small children in a playground, we lash out when someone hits us, believing this is the only normal response.

But our world does need leaders who operate from higher order principles. Principles that are universal in their reach and unyielding in their implementation.  Principles that are guided by a belief in the potential of what men and women are capable of achieving and by holding both ourselves and each other accountable to that highest order of behaviour.  In short, we need an adult in the room. 

One way I think about this is in my dealings with China.

With China’s opening up to the world several decades ago and the enormous prosperity and growth that the country has generated not just for itself but for the world, it has been common to argue that the rest of the world needs to adjust itself to the ‘China way’ of doing things. I encountered this argument many times whilst living in Beijing and was also myself susceptible of thinking that ‘well, that’s just the way things are done here’.  But I’ve come to realise that, whilst we must always continue to maintain a tolerant and open-minded approach to other cultures and ways of doing things, there is always a higher way which goes beyond cultural norms and, I believe, everyone CAN get behind and understand.

What if, in our dealings with others, we assumed a third way?  A way that by elevating our own standards, we invite others to elevate their own.  To assume the best of another person (or, indeed, country) and model a way of behaving that invites them to also raise their game.  This could be the case in all ways in which we engage with another country.  Whether it’s through doing business with them, dealing with war or conflict, or in encouraging them to abide by the highest standards of human rights.

In China, it’s common to want to do things ‘on the cheap’, at a lower standard, and to accept that things are done at the last minute, just in time, in a chaotic and often opaque fashion.  But I have come to realise that it’s possible – indeed, desirable – to make a stand for a better way of doing things. And that individuals respond positively when you show them that better way.  In the many years of running my enterprise, we often had to make a stand to implement projects in a way that delivered quality at the expense of quantity – a hard ask to make sometimes in a country of 1.4 billion people.  Yet it enabled us to garner a reputation of offering a quality product and put us in a different league of professionalism to other organisations.  Our continued presence in the country and interest in our work proves that when you offer quality and make a stand for it, there are better ways to do business that elevate all concerned.

We can all do this, whether dealing with another individual, politician, world leader or cultural norm.  In fact, even when we parent our own children.  We can choose to elevate both ourselves and the other towards a way that respects the dignity and integrity of each player – and invites a standard of behaviour that we would want everyone to display.

We can choose to be the adult in the room.  The one that doesn’t play to the lowest common denominator, like the world leaders in the video, but one where we play our part in raising the game and modelling the exemplary behaviour our world so badly needs in our leaders.  And in each one of us too.

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Published by Caroline Watson

Founder of Hua Dan, a China-based social enterprise that uses the power of participation in theatre as a tool for personal and social transformation. Young Global Leader 2011 of the World Economic Forum. Writer, speaker and entrepreneur.

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