COVID has taken a toll on all of us. If you have not taken an extended vacation in a while where you disconnect, you need to now. You and your business will benefit.
So, as we await the final election results, the only thing that is abundantly clear is that we are divided as a country. Fifty percent wanted a change, and the other fifty percent didn’t. I don’t intend to discuss the whys or rights of either side. However, this has enormous implications for any leader.
As you sit with your team, you have to realize that fifty percent don’t agree with your view of the world, regardless of what they say, and fifty percent do. Previously, the difference was harder to discern. People kept opinions to themselves and didn’t get drawn into political discussions. However, with the polarization of COVID, we now know where people stand from how they feel about masks and social distancing. Regardless of what your people say, they are already deciding how they feel about issues and teammates, those they disagree with, and those they are damning.
However, as a leader, you have to get all these people to pull together, support each other, and achieve more as a team than they can individually. The key is, how?
There are two ways to lead people:
- Divide people. Create a mutual enemy and lead a crusade to conquer it. Life becomes a life or death situation; the sense of urgency provides unconditional support. Conquering, winning at-any-cost, is all that matters.
- Unite people. Find a common cause, a shared ambition, and inspire people to build it with you. Make it a life quest, and people are united by the the mission to build something bigger than themselves. The desire to leave a lasting legacy is what keeps the people joined in the mission.
So how do you intend to lead your organization?
The dividing strategy has been around since the beginning of time; Julius Cesar’s supposed strategy for conquering Gaul was “Divide et impera.” Gaul. As a leader, Nicholas Machiavelli believed it’s better to be feared than to be loved, and the leader should rely upon the art of manipulation to build followers and allies. As George Orwell put it so well in 1984, “The Party believed that they could endlessly engage in a war to keep peace in the country.”
Such leaders use the illusion of division to create a fictional reality. They are compulsive storytellers, using every opportunity to feed anger and violence. One of the problems is that anger is a powerful motivator but hard to sustain in the long run. So, the stories and illusions have to become worse to drive the same level of anger. It is not sustainable.
In some organizations, the competition is the enemy and the desire to destroy it at costs. Someone once told me that everything was portrayed as a life and death battle to destroy their biggest competitor during their corporate orientation. Leadership used every war analogy, including death chants about the competitor. One day he was ill with 104 fever, and there was a blizzard outside. He called his superior to say that he could not make it in, and the superior’s response was, “You will allow [the competition] to fight for another day, causing untold damage on us. Get up and fight to kill them. We need it done today.” They urged him to die on the altar of the war between the companies.
The problem with the deception strategy is it only works in the short term; in the long run, people separate fiction from reality. Leaders who use the divide and conquer approach often create a de-individuation environment, where individuals let go of self-awareness and self-control to imitate others, and one’s individuality becomes lost in the group identity. In such a situation, the organization’s threats are groupthink, and no one stops asking the critical questions as the mob rushes forward with the pitchforks and torches.
When we are so polarized and angry, many may think the divide and conquer strategy the best, as people are already on that path, and we have to refocus the anger. However, when angry and divided, divisions are more easily sown within the group. Suppose problems arise within the organization, the anger quickly moves from an outward focus to an inward one, e.g., production is not keeping up with orders, or customer service is losing our customers. Once the divisions start occurring within the ranks of the organization, it is hard to stop. Enemies and anger spread, and trust falls. The team is dysfunctional. The company is adrift without strategy or guidance, as those within fight among themselves, but the leader is safe.
Focusing on division and a common “enemy” makes it hard to live your core values in many cases. If one of your core values is to treat everyone with respect, then it must apply to your perceived “enemy.” However, that goes against the strategy and dies. Soon there are no core values left, and the only guiding light is winning at all costs. In this environment, the ends justify the means, and the organization destroys everything. As Attila the Hun said, “There, where I have passed, the grass will never grow again.”
I would argue that today, this is the worst way to lead. Leaders choosing this tactic are playing with fire and one that they cannot control.
Leaders who unite people are “builders.” They take a different approach; they don’t tell you to follow orders, but rather to “Join me and follow the mission, not me.” Such leaders and their follows are driven by a purpose bigger than themselves. They are more focused on the impact on society than quarterly earnings. It is not that the latter doesn’t matter, but making money is not enough. Studies show that when leaders connect to a meaningful purpose, it is more likely for employees to connect to it and work harder to achieve their goals.
Thus, it takes far less energy to motivate the employees and customers because their excitement with the mission does a lot of it for you in such an environment. The focus on the mission also allows the team to collaborate effectively. The principle is the mission’s success, which makes them feel good, overriding the divisions in other areas.
However, while getting everyone to follow the mission, there are two dangers: the rise of the “Messiah” within the organization and groupthink. First, leaders focused on the task can become the paramount leader where what they say goes, as no one is allowed to question the Messiah. Second, groupthink creates such an environment where, once more, “the ends justify the means.”
The organization’s core values are essential to ensuring that neither of these outcomes occurs. If, as above, a core value is “Treating everyone with respect,” then those who disagree are not denigrated in such an organization. They may not be on the team, but hatred is not directed at them, and as such divisions are less likely to occur.
In today’s environment, it is worth revisiting your mission, “Why do we exist?” It is also a great time to look at your core values and see how they fit with the organization’s mission and drive behavior. In many organizations, I am aware of, they have core values, but even the CEO cannot articulate them at a moment’s notice. In such organizations, they are just words on a wall. They are not core values. To find your core values, ask your team. “What are the top, non-illegal activities that would get you fired from this organization?” The answers are the opposite of your core values. Compare them to those words on the wall – do your people know and live your core values?
However, while we often have our core values posted within the office, we don’t ask what they mean. Take, for example, Google’s corporate philosophy of “Don’t be evil,” which the company had in the 2000s. An ex-Google employee told me that there was lots of internal debate about its meaning and what actions were allowed. Many core values sound good, but on examination, the organization has done little to define what they mean or show how to live them in difficult situations. Here corporate folklore is of enormous importance. Your organization needs lots of stories that demonstrate the living of its values that are shared with everyone, from new employees to customers. As humans, we love stories and relate to them more than words. Suppose your organization has many stories about how it lived its core values in difficult times. In that case, your employees will know the corporation’s values and how to behave when similar times arise. As I am sure few companies will have a core value that includes the words, hate, discrimination, etc., these behaviors are less likely to develop.
In a divided country, you need to reinforce your core values, live by them, and, as Jim Collins says, be prepared to take a loss to live by them. Start recognizing everyone in your organization that does demonstrate your core values and allows others to do the same at meetings. It needs to be a part of your hiring and review process, as this is the glue that will hold the organization together in a COVID world. When you are hiring, looking where the applicant worked previously, and that organization’s core values may help you decide if they will fit with your team.
Our core values are far more similar among most of us than we realize. If we believe in those together, we can overcome our other divisions and have a friendship because the bonds outweigh the divisions.
Finally, I believe teams need to look at Special Forces teams, e.g., SAS, Seal Team 6, SBS. What I think makes them so effective is that:
- They are solely focused on the mission;
- Their core values are paramount;
- They discuss openly and to determine the best plan to execute the mission. Nothing is personal, but everything is open to challenge;
- Once the plan is adopted, there is full buy-in from the entire team. No one is sitting with their arms folded, hoping it fails so they can say, “I told you so.”
- They know when the mission is no longer viable, and they need to determine a new mission; and
- They undertake extensive post mortems on the plan to learn how they could be more effective and what mistakes were made.
At this time, I would suggest all leaders look to their mission and core values to unify their teams and lead their organization more effectively through the country’s divided landscape. Reach out if you need help defining your mission, BHAG, and core values.
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