It’s been all over the news all weekend, so I won’t bore you with yet another retelling of Mike Pence’s reception at Hamilton on Broadway Friday evening. After he was greeted with boos from the audience, the cast closed the show with an impassioned outreach and a plea for understanding.
Pence reportedly said to his daughter “that’s what freedom sounds like” before walking out the door. Donald Trump, the President-elect, took to Twitter with outrage, demanding an apology for the alleged insult to the future Vice President. Mr. Pence had a more level-headed response. “I wasn’t offended”, he told Fox News Sunday. “I did hear what was said from the stage. I can tell you I wasn’t offended by what was said. I will leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.”
A leadership crisis
86% of respondents to the World Economic Forum’s Survey on the Global Agenda felt we are experiencing a global leadership crisis. Issues like global warming and violence in the Middle East reflect a reluctance to step up, build consensus, and take the often painful steps necessary to improve the states of countries and the world.
The incoming US administration feels they have a mandate to make sweeping changes to the nation, changes they surely know won’t be universally popular. Hamilton was a chance, before they even took office, to speak directly to people concerned about their future. Many interpreted Pence & Trump’s response as indifference and outrage, whether that was Pence’s honest intention or not.
Leadership roles can’t be turned “on” and “off”. Some of Pence’s defenders claim that it was inappropriate to bring politics into the man’s night out with his daughter and her friends. But he is about to step into a role second only to the U.S. President, who is often called the most powerful man in the world and the leader of the free world. Whether someone is a mid-level manager or a high-ranking politician, there is no such thing as being “off duty”. World leaders routinely use something as mundane as a morning run to build relationships between departments and even entire nations. There is a 24/7 responsibility, self-imposed or otherwise, to be there for those who depend on you, and to make efforts that further their success.
Leaders need to have difficult conversations right away. Pence waited until this weekend to address the situation through the media, with just the right makeup and lighting, and with words no doubt vetted by speechwriters and image consultants. But by then, the damage had been done, both by his constituents on social media and his campaign partner. While he may not have had as elegant a response as I (admittedly) spent all afternoon crafting in my head, he was presented with an opportunity to personally touch the cast and audience and reassure them he cared about them. And even if he didn’t have any clever turns of phrase, some extemporaneous words of sympathy would have gone a long way to counter his image as a stereotypical heartless conservative.
If leaders can’t empathize, they should at least sympathize. Pence did neither, at least until he was safely behind his constituent’s TV screens. His moral compass and political beliefs may have prevented him from empathizing with the cast and audience, but surely this was an opportunity to sympathize with them. This was a chance to acknowledge their trepidation at January’s transition of power and at least try to assure them that he’s listening. Instead, that message was reserved for the media, delivered to a television audience instead of the flesh and blood audience desperate for him to acknowledge their pain.
Pence can do better, and so can you.
Sorry, the language gets a little raw in this section.
I don’t want to drag out the cliche guidance that you as a leader can learn from this event. That’s why the title isn’t Three Leadership Lessons from Mike Pence’s Broadway Blunder. But my honest, gut reaction to this whole story is to throw up my hands and say “where the fuck was the leadership here?” I could write a whole book on this brief non-interaction between a politician and a Broadway cast, this apparent shirking of responsibility to those he leads. This could easily be a series of blog posts Monday-Morning Quarterbacking what happened. I’d have material for months.
You want my leadership advice that you can take home to your family, non-profit, business, or other team? Step up when faced with a challenge. Acknowledge the audience’s feelings, whether it’s a disgruntled team at work, a frustrated client, or a literal audience like this one. Respect their feelings and own the impression you’ve given them, whether you feel it’s justified or not. And make it clear that you’re not so uninterested in their feelings you’ll retreat to a safe place and deliver your response unchallenged. Roll up your sleeves and prepare to get dirty. Take a chance they still might not like you. But do something, then and there, to address the situation.
It could have been different. It should have been different. Imagine how things could have been for Pence if the audience’s phones captured this ending:
Following Brandon Dixon’s speech, Vice President-elect Pence approached the stage, lifted himself up on the proscenium (admittedly, it took a few tries), dusted the sawdust off his Hugo Boss suit pants, and hugged the actor. Taking the microphone from Dixon, he waited for the audience to calm before starting with an earnest “thank you”.
A hush fell over the shocked audience, permitting him to continue. “Mister Dixon, thank you for an amazing night of theater. I see why your show is so popular, apparently more popular than I am around here. And I’ll admit that’s largely my fault. I’ve been rather focused on my home and constituents in Indiana these past few years and I’ve neglected to spend time with the rest of the country. And that’s something I’ll need to work on as your Vice President.
Now here I am, literally stealing the spotlight from you, Mister Dixon, and I feel terrible for that. And I know you’ve got a cast party to get to, and I’m sure these folks out in the audience have babysitters and late night dinner reservations, so I don’t want to waste any more of your time. But I do want to assure you that as your Vice President, I will always have the best interests of this country and her people in my heart. We may not always agree with what that means, but I promise you it’s true.
The men hugged again. Mike Pence waved to the audience before climbing off the stage and departing with his daughter.