A Veteran Washington Player on Why Businesses Are Getting So Political

A Veteran Washington Player on Why Businesses Are Getting So Political

Callie Enlow

Photo courtesy of Matthew Dowd

Photo courtesy of Matthew Dowd

Some people know Matthew Dowd as the chief political analyst for ABC, where he frequently appears on Good Morning America and This Week. Others may recall him as a key member of George W. Bush’s inner circle until he publicly broke up with the White House on the front page of The New York Times in 2007. Most people probably wouldn’t peg Dowd as the originator of “country over party”—a rallying cry that took hold during the 2016 GOP primaries and endures today—but he’s that, too, as well as a best-selling author and entrepreneur.

That “country over party” sentiment and forthright NYT interview are examples of Dowd’s attempts to infuse politics, and now business, with the conscientiousness that he and many others feel is sorely lacking these days. It’s also the theme of his new book A New Way: Embracing the Paradox as We Lead and Serve, which was inspired by an extended solo trip Dowd took to “walk in the path of the five major spiritual faiths” and come to terms with a personal history that includes divorce, tragic deaths, and risky career decisions. A nasty infection caught during his travels left Dowd vulnerable and perilously ill, but the kindness of a stranger in Turkey occasioned a revelation about how fears and unchallenged beliefs were causing him to overlook others’ humanity—something he sees mirrored in our increasingly polarized society. Via a candid examination of his own life, Dowd presents eight paradoxes he believes business and political leaders should pursue to bring the country back from the brink of toxic tribalism and unjust economic inequality.

We called Dowd at his Central Texas home to get his thoughts on Donald Trump, Silicon Valley, and the problem with most people’s bookshelves. 

Make Change: When did the idea strike you to start writing this book?

Dowd: I've been taking notes on a lot of the ideas for the last six or seven years. ... Right after election day I basically took all of that and for two months put it all together as one book.

MC: So the presidential election was the catalyst?

D: Bingo. Exactly. 

MC: Why? Considering your longtime involvement in politics, was the [election result] something that you were expecting, or were you just as taken aback as almost everybody else?

D: Well ... I don't think Donald Trump is the cause of this disruption, I think Donald Trump is the result of the disruption. And though he's an accelerating and destructive force, he is the result of all of this change that has been occurring in the last 20 years or so in our economy, in our culture, in our politics, in our media. ... We really need to move toward a new brand of leaders at every level, otherwise we're going to keep having these eruptions, and they’re not going to solve any problems.

MC: Unless we consciously figure out a ‘new way’ (to borrow from the title of your book), do you think that we will increasingly move toward tribalism? Do you see that as the natural progression of things right now?

D: I think that’s exactly right. I think we’ve become more and more tribalized, and the Trump presidency defines tribes even more, just by the manner of his leadership and the substance of his leadership. I fear that we’re moving more and more toward a combination of broken democracy and broken capitalism, both of which have been drivers of huge, substantive progress in the world. But if we continue on this path without a new brand of leadership at every level, then we’re going to end up with a broken financial system—capitalism—and a broken political system—democracy. 

MC: In terms of capitalism right now, what are the hallmarks of a potentially broken system? What are the things that companies can try to address?

D: At the system [level it] is the great level of inequality that exists, and deepening inequality. The great sense that a huge segment of the country is not seeing any substantive improvement in their standard of living, and they haven’t for a few decades. The idea of capitalism and a free market system was that everybody would have the same rules that applied to them, would have the same chances, the same opportunities. That increasingly is going away, where the rewards of the system are going to a few and the many are left out of it. For capitalism … our business community needs to start putting the community and the whole over … being driven purely by profits and a small number of people accumulating wealth.

I think business leaders are making a mistake of continuing to follow this path of profit, profit, profit, accumulate wealth. Because in the end people are just going to pull out of the system and say the system doesn’t work, or they’re going to push really hard against the idea, which is why socialist ideas are getting more and more debated, interestingly, along with nationalistic ideas. Many leaders aren’t recognizing that if they continue on this path, then the system of capitalism is going to break.

MC: Part of the disillusion that I see is that the information revolution and Silicon Valley has seemed like it holds so much promise for our economy, but when you look at who’s really getting funded, what types of people are on the boards, and who’s really in the C-suite of startups that make it, it still seems like pretty much the same white guys. Is diversity and inclusion one of the paradoxes, or part of the new way you discuss in your book?

D: Putting the whole over the part automatically means that you want a more diverse workplace, but diversity isn’t enough, you have to have inclusion. … I think a lot of workplaces—especially in the wealth creation mode—they’re ‘diverse,’ but I would say they’re not necessarily inclusive, which means people are not in the room making decisions and their opinions are [not] wanted, desired, and utilized. ... The businesses that are usually most diverse and most inclusive are actually the most innovative. Because they consider the whole, they see everything that’s going on. 

MC: When you see brands in the news for their poor treatment of customers or employees—like Uber or United Airlines, to name some recent examples—do you see failures to embrace some of the paradoxes that you talk about in your book?

D: The fundamental problem is the inability to understand that decisions [consumers] are making today are inherent values-driven. Though how much something costs is obviously important, people want some level of values connection, and they want to understand the mission. … So companies that ignore that fundamental values-based mission and only pursue pure profit, the pure ability to extract every dollar they can, are going to increasingly not do as well and fail, in my view. They may succeed in the short term and fail in the long term. Uber is an example of that. United is an example of that. … People are going to see them as not having the same values that they do.

Part of the paradox is that you could both be a capitalist and be socially conscious. … Companies basically need to be able to bridge that socially conscious community with capitalism. 

MC: In an authentic way…

D: Absolutely. Authenticity is a very key attribute. It can’t be marketing, right? Because people figure it out quickly now. … If you lie to them or make something up or say you’re something that you’re not, they’re going to figure it out and you’re going to suffer more.

MC: Like Pepsi’s recent ad with Kendall Jenner. 

D: Yep, exactly.

MC: A lot of companies are putting their values out there, ostensibly, but also getting increasingly political. What do you think about the private sector voicing political opinions in a way that consumers can really see and respond to?

D: I think you’re going to see more and more of that. Because that’s one of the cues people can get about what your values are. And I think … politics is now intertwined with so much that companies can’t just stay out of it. They have to engage in some way. … The pressure is becoming very strong. And I think with non-engagement, companies are fooling themselves. If you don’t engage and you don’t stand up for things, people are taking that as a signal either [that] you don’t care or that it’s something that’s not important to [your company]. And so a decision not to engage is as much a decision to engage.

MC: Getting out of your own bubble and going on this incredible journey that you open the book with was powerful to you personally. What advice would you give to business leaders about how they can escape entrenched mindsets that are holding them back or making it more difficult to put the community above their own self-interest?

D: The huge step is you can’t consume information that basically confirms your bias, whatever that is. Because of technology, people can now access so much more information, but they’re accessing information that confirms a bias or prejudice or some matter which they’ve already decided on, and they get more and more locked in. It’s a huge problem for politics, but it’s [also] a huge problem for business.  

You need to access information that makes you feel uncomfortable about the decisions you make so it makes you contemplative. Businesses need to have contemplation before they take action. … Harkening back to something we talked about earlier, another way to do that is to have people around you that are not only diverse demographically, but have diverse worldviews. Diversity is not just that we need to have more women in the workplace or minorities in leadership positions, it also has to be people that have worldviews that are different than you.

MC: What are some of your favorite places to get other people’s personal stories and viewpoints?

D: Break out of the homogeneity of whatever community you’re in. If you no longer can count on your neighbor to be different [in] viewpoint or the way they approach the world, break out of that. Go to places that are outside of your community, access multiple viewpoints. I use Twitter as a source for multiple viewpoints. I have a lot of people that I follow and that I engage with—they may hate politics or they may be totally with Trump or they may be totally against Trump or whatever. I use it as a sort of diverse news source and engage with that.

And read something that you’re not used to reading. I see this a lot in the business community, they have a tendency to exercise only one muscle, they read all of these things that are only about business or all about economics or all about marketing or whatever it happens to be. …. Too many people, if you look at their bookshelves it’s 90 percent of the same type of book. … If you’re in business, read a book on spirituality. If you’re a Catholic, read a book on Hinduism. If you’re in philanthropy, read a book on the struggles of capitalism and what that means. 

 This interview has been edited and condensed.

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