Our diminishing tolerance for difference is bad for democracy

There’s a widespread feeling that democracy has lost its way. Those in power are seen as out of touch, the public feel ignored. Within governments too there is a growing frustration with the old ways and a realisation that things can be done better.

I’ve talked about how we can make this critical shift from arrogance to intimacy. By this I mean that democracy’s problems stem from our arrogance or aloofness. From an assumption that we can control. Control the process, the people, the agenda, the timeframe, the outcome. This isn’t just a people problem (though they certainly perpetuate it) it’s at the heart of many of our systems.

Government is too often top down, too many of those in it craving power and control because that’s how it works and how you get ahead. But democracy has gone wrong and ended up like an old Communist-era command economy, where a small elite issue disconnected edicts without bothering to listen to those at the sharp end.

The journey to intimacy starts with more engagement and opening up channels: outwards in terms of transparency and open data; inwards in terms of listening (lots of listening) and engaging more widely. Intimacy is about new partnerships and new forms of partnership. It’s about co-creating ideas, services and policy.

This requires a transformation of the external processes and relationships of government but, before transformation can take root, it needs an internal shift in culture – both individually and throughout the system.

It requires an acceptance of innovation and innovation requires courage and passion. It needs us to adopt systematic ways to create order out of apparent chaos, promote free thinking and to safely catch failure. It requires a cognitive shift from seeing lack of control as a risk when in reality it has become an asset. Letting go of personal power creates the space for true power through mutuality and trust.

It’s about moving away from ‘leading in’ to ‘leading for’ democracy. Where the former is arrogant the latter leads to intimacy, allowing the best people to create, innovate, engage and share change. Where arrogance is about power, intimacy is about igniting potential.

How do we lead for democracy?

Here are ten ways to start:

  1. Accept that internal change comes before institutional change.
  2. Always negotiate the process, never force the outcome.
  3. Passionately support others to innovate.
  4. Trust people to succeed, allow them to fail safely.
  5. Celebrate when others share, try, do.
  6. Break down walls, banish silos, welcome diversity.
  7. Share everything.
  8. Embrace collective ownership.
  9. Learn to love imperfection and seek opportunity in it.
  10. Find the edge of your comfort zone then step over the line…