One of the most alluring power levers in a leader’s wheelhouse has been to use competition with The Other as a motivation for uniting a disparate population. Every industry has its version of Coke vs. Pepsi rivalries, which adds a degree of existential urgency to sales targets and product development timelines and promotes an overall sense of shared community. It’s not just about hitting our targets, it’s about beating the other side.
While Us vs. Them is useful for leaders bent on inspiring healthy competition, it is stating the obvious that it has become overleveraged. In politics, media and the very technology that fuels our connection to the world, polarization seems to have become both the medium and the message. The Other has become not just different, but morally inferior, cancerous and evil. Moreover, the predilection for sorting into Us and Them has become reflexive: It’s not just our competitors we need to overcome, it’s our bureaucratic finance group, our slow-moving product developers, our sales teams who’ll make no-margin deals just to secure a contract. It’s the woke leaders in our company, unless it’s the resident Neanderthals. “They” are running our culture/mission/future.
For leaders in the 2020s, this is a real and present problem. How do you create unity and alignment in a world geared to polarization? In grappling with this question, the Editorial Board of People + Strategy journal sought out leaders, board members and thinkers who have grappled with some level of success in bringing disparate communities together in order to create a focused outcome.
Throughout the conversations, one thing has become clear: It is easier to divide than to unite. The task of helping an organization create unity and build alignment often falls to senior HR leaders. For HR, that demands a mix of roles as advisor, executive role model, engagement steward and—let’s face it—at times as scapegoat. So, who is doing “uniting” well, and what lessons can we learn from them?
In these pages, a CEO shares learnings from 20 years of uniting the full spectrum of constituencies—big businesses and entrepreneurs, environmentalists and farmers, etc.—and the most surprising leadership principle that his failures and his successes have taught him.