In times of stress we revert to habits. This is a phrase I use often in my classes and with my clients. Our habits give us templates for action and they also reveal the unconscious choices and decisions we’ve already made.
I was reminded of this truth while watching Donald Trump and his entourage forcibly remove peaceful protestors so he could stage a photo shoot in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. As some of the most powerful people in our government arranged themselves in front of the façade of the church, somewhat clumsily I might say, I was struck by one gentleman in particular. His name is Robert O’Brien and he is currently our national security adviser. I was perplexed by the look on his face. I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret what I was witnessing. On first glimpse, the entire performance looks as staged and as phony as we know it to be. But as I continued to watch O’Brien’s performance, his face revealed what I imagine was an internal battle going on inside of his head and heart.
Perhaps, I am giving him more credit than he deserves. It’s certainly possible there was no inner turmoil and he just looks like that all the time. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. What if he was uncomfortable by Trump’s performance at the time, and in this incredibly stressful moment he simply didn’t know what to do? What if he was torn between doing what his boss wanted him to do and honoring that quiet voice inside telling him this wasn’t right? It must have been a stressful moment on many dimensions.
The next morning, well after Trump and his team had retreated into the White House compound, I found myself continuing to make sense of what I thought I was observing in O’Brien. I brought this up in a conversation later that morning with a small group of people and I asked them to help me understand what Mr. O’Brien was thinking. “What’s the problem with O’Brien?” I asked the group. “He’s standing outside of a church, next to a man holding a Bible, and he looks miserable. Why? What did he expect to feel when he chose to go along with the charade?”
Then, one of the participants in the conversation said something that nearly knocked me over. Paraphrasing, he offered this explanation: “AJ, he is not uncomfortable because he knows better. He is uncomfortable because he’s afraid to choose sides, and he’s afraid to choose sides because he’s not sure which side is going to win.”
The clarity and truth in that explanation humbled me. I had forgotten, in my righteous discontent, that some people don’t think about what is right and wrong. Instead, in moments like these, they think about which side is going to win. And as they experience more and more stress, their habits consume them, revealing templates for action that suggest they are not tethered to decency.
This moment will be iconic in American history because it suggests something very disturbing about the habits we’re developing in this country. In times of stress, some leaders equivocate. Some remain silent. Some become complicit in the destruction of the norms that were once used to unify us. The habits we’re seeing from some in power reveal both the conscious and the unconscious decisions they’ve already made. Complicity in the presence of Trump has grown from a habit into a ritual and these rituals threaten our American experiment.
This is why this moment is iconic. The habits we develop while we fight challenges like the coronavirus, the economic slowdown, and anti-black racism will define us for decades to come. There will be more stressful moments in the days, weeks, and years to come. I pray we develop habits that will make those who come after us proud. I pray our new habits reveal the choices and decisions we’ve made to put decency over domination.
About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.