Leading Trends: Tracking Changes in Values and Culture

Change may be inevitable, but following the leading edge of transformation often means being surprised and challenged. Here is one surprise in recent news, with a quick assessment of implications for leadership.

1. Social attitudes shift, and leadership shifts with them: according to a recent Washington Post, over the past year there has been “record support for gay marriage.”

According to the post, 2004 figures have been turned on their heads, with 58% of people polled supporting legal gay marriage, and only 36% opposing legal unions.

Image from the Post, 3/19/2013

Image from the Post, 3/19/2013

With figures like this, it makes sense that the front-page headline on the same day the results were published read: “Republicans to draw up a plan to broaden appeal.”

The demographics are striking: “Among young adults age 18 to 29, support for gay marriage is overwhelming, hitting a record high of 81 percent  in the new poll. Support has also been increasing among older adults, but those aged 65 years old and up remain opposed, on balance: 44 percent say same-sex marriage should be legal; 50 percent say illegal.”

And even among Republicans, who still statistically resist the arguments for legalization, the numbers are shifting to reflect the national trend. Here’s a comparative chart for Democrats and Republicans, by age and party.

Poll from 3/19/13 Washington Post

Poll from 3/19/13 Washington Post

Conservative Senator Ron Portman would be among those GOP members changing their minds about gay marriage. One of his sons came out, and Senator Portman changed his views, responding to his mentor, Dick Cheney’s advice: “I followed my heart.”

And he’s not the only one: “Portman’s announcement comes on the heels of more than 100 big-name GOPers signing a brief to the Supreme Court in favor of gay marriage — an effort organized by former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who is gay. (The Supreme Court is expected to hear a challenge to California’s gay marriage law later this month.)

This news doesn’t mean the battle for marriage equality is over, but the battleground has changed significantly, and not in the favor of conservatives.

According to scholars Margaret Gram Crehan, Katherine Rickenbaker, “In 1996, a national Harris Poll indicated a 5-1 opposition in the U.S. to same-sex marriage (Harris Interactive 2004). The same poll conducted in 2004 found that many more people approved of same-sex marriage, with only a 2-1 margin of opposition.” (Read more details about specific cases of GLBT citizens filing for marriage since 1971…)

They track the shift in attitudes in part to a transformation of the discussion in the media, from religious values to civil rights, a shift I believe comes from organized GLBT and GLBT-friendly coalitions of activists, including organizations like Human Rights Watch,  Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Freedom to Marry, and  Human Rights Campaign.

It seems most GOP politicians are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude, maybe because they recognize the writing on the wall, or maybe because their already divided party is creating a new strategy.

“National Journal’s Political Insiders survey last month found that nearly half of Republicans think the topic should be avoided. Nearly three out of 10 said they support same-sex marriage, while only 11 percent are opposed. That’s a big departure from 2009, when half of the Republican Insiders said the party should oppose gay marriage.”

But it’s not something anyone can avoid talking about. Among all the buzz around the election of Pope Francis are articles about his lack of support for gay marriage although he supported civil unions.

The issue isn’t going anywhere. What’s a leader to do?

Whatever side of the debate a politician or civic leader may choose, wait and see is NOT the best strategy. Younger Americans will vote overwhelmingly against repressing civil rights based in sexual diversity. And older Americans are changing their minds as young people in their families and communities demonstrate that GLBT citizens are not the perverts they’d been taught to expect.

There’s nothing left to do but Listen – Engage fully – Ask questions- and- Don’t panic!  When big changes happen, sustainable leadership depends on these four basic skills.

AIDS activists originated the slogan “Silence = Death.” In many ways, that will be true for leaders who are afraid to take a civil part in this national conversation that reflects 50 years of social transformation.


  1. […] Survival and innovation are the Shapeshifter’s specialty, made sustainable and healthy by attention to our deepest values and (genuinely) best leadership practices. If you’re there at the ILA, let’s find each […]


  2. […] telling is backed up — we do. Gopnik is talking about the kind of leadership that goes the the cultural source of a crisis, rather than letting a crisis hide behind individual […]


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