When I was in my second year at Texas A&M University, our architectural design class took on a project to work with a local vineyard on a design for a new facility outside of College Station. As we began the design process, we had the vinter make a presentation on the science of winemaking. We learned about proper cultivation of grapes, whether white or red, and the timing for the harvest. He taught us about the process of crushing and pressing the grapes, then filtering the juice into proper oak casks for red or stainless-steel tanks for white. Back in the day, we were all of drinking age and you just knew that an entire class was looking forward to impressing others with their new found understanding of oenology.
More than anything the vinter taught, I was most struck by wine tasting and the fanfare that accompanied the corking of a vintage wine. From the silver-plated wine tasting cup, or Tastevin, to the aroma and swirling technique, the process is really a ritual that can be quite complex as the taster judges the appearance, sensation in the mouth, and aftertaste. I do not think anyone in the lecture hall was prepared, however, for the vinter to admit that, more often than not, a vintage wine often tasted vinegary due to bacteria coming in contact with the air and creating acetic acid. With a smirk on his face and a slight whisper, the vinter secretly confessed that no one would ever admit to the bad taste of a wine after spending as much as $2,000 for a bottle.
Doesn’t that ring true of us in a politically charged society? Think about it. When our social media lights up over a sundry antics in Washington D.C. and friends begin to fight against friends, aren’t we similar to the snobbish wine tasting events? We take a particular political stance, whether out of personal preference or what we might believe to be a convincing political argument, and we do not budge, even when a reasoned discussion might validate the other side.
Whether good or bad, we often become advocates for a political or social cause because we would never align ourselves with something questionable. Our investment in a particular position demonstrates a certain level of commitment that we want to ensure is articulated to others. After all, who wants to admit that they spent $2,000 on a bottle of wine that was bad? As the vinter shared, those participating in the wine taste, with all the pomp and circumstance, want to save face among their peers. Whether they do this in the full knowledge of the acidic taste or blindly follow the way it has always been done is usually not as important as the appearance of an undaunted commitment to not being humiliated.
Leadership is much like wine tasting. It takes a courageous leader to recognize that the way we have always done things might not be the best way. In fact, there is a danger, I would suggest, when a leader becomes uncritical. Just like the wine taster, a blind allegiance or a lack of humility does not help make the wine taste any better. The potential results of a leader who blindly follows the way things were done can be devastating: growth stagnates, innovation is squashed, change becomes an enemy, and forward thinking is criticized or discouraged. It could have been the best way at the time, but cultures change as does our understanding of the future. A commitment to the way things were done or to an ideal past will ensure a bad taste now and in the future, whether admitted or not.