Composure and the Presidential Debates

Composure and the Presidential Debates

I found myself writing a talk on composure two days after the presidential debate.

While commentators and political pundits used the word “presidential” to define the tenor and tone that two persons were trying to master, they were really talking about composure—how people are perceived by those who experience interaction with them, how they come across, and how “rattle-able” they are under pressure and in crisis.

Sadly, the preparation for debates imagines that professional coaching can dramatically change the essence of who a person has been becoming for his or her whole life. And I suppose it can, for 90 minutes, soften tone, tweak posture, and calculate expressions. But in the end, we’re looking for a daily leader, not a primetime actor. The coaching we need is not for some surreal stage, but for deep integrity and coherence—for daily habits that dig deep grooves in our brains and enable us to be comfortable in our own skin on the spot. 

David Brooks, NY Times writerWhen I think about composure, David Brooks comes to mind. He is an op-ed columnist for the NY Times, a regular guest on “PBS NewsHour” and “Meet the Press.” One of the best books I’ve read this year is his The Road to Character. He writes about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills and experiences that make you a candidate for a specific job, your external success. The eulogy virtues are what they talk about at your funeral, the values that exist at the core of your being. Brooks describes people who have paid attention to their eulogy virtues in this way: 

“They possess an inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scatter-shot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. … They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest everyday spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all. They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it. They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them. They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so. After you’ve known them for a while it occurs to you that you’ve never heard them boast, you’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments. They have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity. They have gone some way toward solving life’s essential problem, which is that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it,  ‘The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.’ These are people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul. … These are the people we are looking for.” (David Brooks, The Road to Character, Random House, 2015. pg. xvi, xvii)

Composure is about an inner integrity that is neither instant nor easy. It goes to the core of our self-knowledge and character. If one shining moment is all we’re in it for, acting lessons would be cheaper than integrity. 

But the world needs people of composure. Most leadership tasks, similar to mine, have competing constituencies that are constantly pressing or pulling us in opposite directions.

I found comfort recently in the obituary of Jack Coleman, former president of Haverford College. During his presidency, he was constantly at the center of conflicting interest groups. His obituary quoted him as having said, “In actuality, a president is at the center of a web of conflicting interest groups, none of which can ever be fully satisfied. He is, by definition, almost always wrong. It’s all very interesting, and not hard to take once he gets over wanting to be right and settles instead for doing the best he can.” There’s a man with composure. 

So how do we get there?

  1. We have to be willing to visit our own basement and see our shadow side. We must be honest with ourselves about who we really are. We banish our worst traits to the basement, lock the door, and trick ourselves into believing that there’s nothing down there. Visit your basement, and you’ll find things lurking there, like low self-esteem, brewing resentment, revenge, the need to prove our parents or spouse or former boss wrong. All kinds of stuff ends up in our basements. Our emotions know this in a way that our brains don’t. So we end up fragmenting our public and private selves in a way that fractures integrity. We hate what is in our basements. And the way we justify our opposition to our own shadow side is to project it on other people and attack it. We reserve our highest octane for responding to traits in other people that are residing in our basement. When my oldest daughter hit the teenage years, she could drive me up the wall faster than any human on the planet. My reaction to her was instant and reactionary. Why? In the words of my wise wife, it’s “because she’s just like you.” I was reacting to things about myself that I didn’t like. When they surfaced in her, I was shouting at myself in the mirror. Composure is hard to come by when we do not realize what we are doing. Have you been in your basement lately? 
  2. We have to get out of the echo chamber that we create for ourselves. We thought this new age of information technology would widen our perspective, deepen our knowledge, extend our thinking. It is doing exactly the opposite. With overwhelming data and voices and knowledge, we have carefully selected to pay attention to people who tell us what we already think. We follow the people we already agree with on Twitter and Facebook. We read books that allow us to underline our own opinion. We listen to commentators who make us feel smart because they articulate what we have been saying. We’re living in echo chambers that are not much more than our own voices bouncing back to us. Composure requires that we live in a world of diversity and difference. We have to feel at home outside our echo chambers and learn to be kind and wise in the presence of dramatically different people. While I would never chose to take a knee in response to the national anthem, I need to understand the experiences that would bring a person to this point. Rather than quickly condemning the actions of others, I must look beyond their deeds to their deeper narratives and listen. This is the only way that I can demonstrate composure in the face of things I do not grasp on the surface.
  3. We need to develop an uncommon sense of welcome and hospitality. There is a shift from modernism to postmodernism that many of us have not negotiated well. In the modern world, the way you debated was along the axis of right and wrong, good and bad, what works or doesn’t work. We made our points and launched our logic believing the best thinking would win. In postmodernism, the axis has shifted from right and wrong to inclusion and exclusion. In other words, we’ve moved from a dominantly IQ world to an EQ world—from intellect to emotion, or more precisely, from ideas to relationships. In this world of inclusion/exclusion, the way you fight is to draw your circle, define the boundaries, and let everyone in who agrees with you. Then you label those who don’t, heap shame and derision on them, and justify your exclusion of them. We form alliances of like-minded people and learn the art of shaming others. In this culture of shame, we find people who are either soft/soft or hard/hard. The soft/soft folk accept everyone and the whole package of ideas that comes with them. They are welcoming, kind, and open. And when this person gets inside the circle, there is no critique of their assumptions, no confrontation of their ideas, no honesty, no coaching, no sharing of wisdom, no confrontation—because soft/soft people just want to be liked. The hard/hard folk are exactly the opposite. They have an exterior that is rigidly judgmental, a litmus test of sorts at the front door. They allow in only people who are like them. And their core values are harder still. But people of composure are neither soft/soft nor hard/hard. Rather, their exterior relational composure is welcoming, kind, inviting, and respectful. They have a composure of welcome rather than judgment. But once you step inside the welcome, you discover that this person is rock solid, steady, principled, uncompromising on life values. The best example I know of this is Jesus. I’ve come to believe that the essence of composure is the ability to stay welcoming and kind at the front door, and to retain a hard integrity in the unfolding or deepening of the relationship.

As the presidential race unfolds and we watch for behavior that looks presidential, I’d encourage us to pursue something much deeper than coached reaction.

Let’s become people of composure.


Photo of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
By Donald Trump August 19, 2015 (cropped).jpg: BU Rob13 Hillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore 2.jpg: Gage [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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