Collaboration among community leaders is one of the keys to success in moving an area forward. But what if leaders don’t seem to want to collaborate? What if they are more concerned with their own territory than the community as a whole? What can be done to get them together? One good place to begin is the dinner table.
One of the reasons that community leaders don’t work together is that they don’t respect each other. They may see each other as unequals or even adversaries. The reason they don’t respect each other is that they don’t understand each other. And one of the reasons that they don’t understand each other is that they don’t listen to each other. One of the best ways to begin to listen to each other is to have a meal together. And not the kind of meal that they usually attend together, i.e. the civic club luncheons, the public/private partnership meetings, the board meetings, etc. The meal should be one-on-one or better yet one-on-one in each other’s homes.
Dining in each other’s homes is not as common as it used to be. Nowadays, friends and business acquaintances are more likely to go out to dine at a restaurant. That was not always the case. This writer recalls the time some 20-plus years ago when he was summoned to jury duty at the federal courthouse. At the beginning of the jury selection process, the judge asked prospective jurors if any of them were personal friends of any of the attorneys. One person raised his hand, saying he knew one of the attorneys. The judge then began probing into how well the juror was acquainted with the attorney. He asked the usual questions, and then he asked, “Have you ever had dinner in his home or has he ever had dinner in your home?” The prospective juror replied in the negative, whereupon the judge said that the man did not know the attorney well enough to be excused from jury duty.
Sharing a meal with someone else, and not having an agenda other than to get to know each other better can be the beginning of a joint effort to improve the community. Once upon a time, there was a community in Mississippi where there were three main influencers. One was the mayor, one was the president of the county board of supervisors and one was the chief executive of the largest employer in the area. The only time they dealt with each other was in public meetings where many other people were usually present. The community was not growing and no new businesses of significance were opening. An outside consultant evaluated the situation, recognized the dysfunction and recommended that the three leaders have a monthly meal together. Before long, they began to understand each other, respect each other and work together. Today, that community is on the move.
History is filled with leaders having meals together to get to know each other better, to resolve their issues and to plan the future. Let us begin with some noteworthy World War II meals. In 1942, Winston Churchill met Stalin for the first time. The purpose of their meeting was to generally discuss the end of the war and who would get what. They had dinner at the Kremlin. At the WW2History.com website History Professor David Williams gives his impression of the dinner and the meeting as Churchill would have perceived it:
“There’s a man here who I can deal with. Okay, so we had a bad day yesterday, but today is a good day, we’ve had dinner, we’ve had a booze, we’ve talked about families and things, this is human stuff. And given how remote Stalin was before, that’s progress. Churchill always hangs onto this, he always feels that if he could get round the table with Stalin things could be sorted out.”
There were many more dinner meetings in which Churchill, Stalin and others, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt would attend. There was the Tehran Conference in November 1943 and the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
In American history, there is probably no more famous meal than that which occurred in 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. It is not known exactly what was consumed at this meal, but turkey was probably one of the dishes. Governor William Bradford wrote about the food situation of the autumn of 1621, saying that “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.” Although this meal was probably a harvest celebration, there is no doubt that the participants got to know each other better.
Leaders of all stripes use luncheons and dinners to meet with those who oppose them and those who support them to discuss issues. In February of this year, President Obama met with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a private lunch session to discuss ways they could work together. Not really sure how that has worked out.
Without a doubt, the most famous meal would be that known as The Last Supper, in which Jesus Christ foretold coming events and instructed his disciples on what to do when he was gone.
As this writer observes current political events in Mississippi it is hoped that leaders from different sides of the issues would simply take the time to have a meal together and get to know each other on a more personal basis. Who knows what might happen?