Leading in Polarized Times
Lately, it seems as though people are dividing themselves into categories, drawing lines between themselves and others that are increasingly harder to cross.
All over the world, we are now defined largely by what separates us.
As a leader, this makes for a challenging culture to navigate. One of the biggest responsibilities we have is to bring people together, to get our teams aligned around a common vision and goal.
If leaders are tasked with finding what unites people in order to get things done, what happens when the focus is on what makes us different?
How do we lead in polarized times?
As I’ve thought about it, I find there are five practices leaders must embrace in order to bring people together.
- Clarity A leader who can’t be clear is a leader that can’t bring a group of people into a functioning team. Before you can lead others, you must be clear about your values and vision because they are the foundation for your leadership.Values matter because they determine your integrity; good values produce thoughts, words, and deeds that are in alignment, which creates trust for those that would follow you. And a clear vision points everyone in the same direction.When you know what you stand for and where you’re going, you have a greater chance to rally people to your side.
- Connection Are you connected with your people? Do you know them? Do you spend time figuring out where they are? A leader who assumes that because people show up in an office, they must be on the same page as you, is a leader who won’t be leading very long.You must go after your people. You can’t expect them to come to you. In a world filled with constant messages, you can’t expect your words to naturally filter their way into the hearts and minds of your team. That means being intentional about getting to know them.If you’re not naturally gifted at connecting with others, there are two practices you can start tomorrow that will do more to connect you to your team than anything else: ask them questions and then listen to their answers.
- Compassion One of the greatest contributors to a polarized culture is the inability—or unwillingness—to think about the other person’s point of view. It’s a trap that many people fall into. As leaders, we have to show the way we want others to go. That means demonstrating compassion when necessary.I’m not just talking about having empathy for someone going through a hard time; I’m talking about us as leaders being willing to set aside our own desires to think through an issue from someone else’s perspective. Call it humility or empathy or whatever else you’d like, we lead others well when we take time to consider life through their eyes.
- Candor While compassion helps a leader understand his or her people, candor is what allows a leader to do what’s best for the team. Sometimes, you just have to tell people like it is.While some people would argue that “telling it like it is” contributes to a polarized society, leaders cannot lead well if they can’t or won’t speak the truth to their team. It’s when candor is uncoupled from compassion, that things go wrong.A hard truth spoken with genuine concern and understanding is how leaders build trust—and trust builds a team.
Sometimes, a leader has to step into the middle of something in order to bring people together. That’s the idea behind what my CEO, Mark Cole, calls The CEO Corner.Once every few months, Mark calls the entire company together for a voluntary gathering, usually with lunch provided. Once everyone has a full plate, Mark intentionally brings a topic of conversation to the room with the express purpose of listening to the team wrestle with the answer.The topics are usually hot button issues that people are discussing, either online or around the water cooler, and it doesn’t take long before someone has something to say. We have a diverse team, and that diversity is reflected in the answers and perspectives that come to light during these lunches.
Mark is careful never to put his opinion into the mix, preferring instead to listen and learn. It’s a courageous move on his part—and on the part of our team—to deliberately address the issues that sometimes divide us.
It’s risky, but it helps create a safer culture for our people; they not only get to know their co-workers better, they are reminded that not everyone who thinks differently from them is an anonymous stranger on the internet. Sometimes, the perspective they think is dead wrong belongs to a co-worker they dearly love—and that tension can prompt healthy growth.
Leadership in polarized times means being willing to pull our people together, even when the world would rather pull them apart. It’s difficult, and sometimes unpleasant, but that’s the reality of what it means to lead—leaders get the hard stuff because no one else wants it.
We can’t run from it, so that means we must run to it—with clarity, connection, compassion, candor, and courage.
Excellent post. This is particularly useful in church leadership.
Such an important post with things that all of us in leadership roles need to keep in mind. Thank you!
A clear and useful message. Thank you.
Beautifully written and described. Thank you
Great reminders. Thanks.
Great message! Very true!
I didnt have the beat role models growing up but ever since I heard about you , you have become someone who I aspire to be like for others , thank you for your wisdom and leadership God bless you and the team ?
Great post and great ideas.
However, I believe that the bar in polarized times is sometimes so high that we need to work with or is it around certain conditions that may make the challenge all the greater for leaders. For instance, when change within an organization is driven by the need for leaders to offer direction that suggest that we can no longer do as we have in the pas, courage is clearly tested. How do you pull people together when “informal” leaders clearly are not interested?
Perfect timing!! I am leading a Leadership Roundtable discussing how we can be the Greatest Generation in Civil Service tomorrow. This is a fantastic article that I will use to create conversation and get teams to think about these 5 C’s to grow our culture in positive ways.
I would like to receive your posts by email.
I’m so glad I found your blog and can’t wait for new lessons each week
As an adjunct, I”m responsible to learn as well as teach the people in my class. I’ve always been aware one must try to place myself into another person’s life. To say one understands another viewpoint, yet be true to one’s own view, is a delicate balance. Sometimes just listening is important, while keeping an open mind and remaining flexible, I can be successful. People will say things they heard elsewhere and this may not be an inherent truth, so asking questions rather than confrontation with my own ideas are crucial to maintaining a good rapport with students. My approach is trying to allow people to choose their conclusions based on what I say in the classroom, whether those conclusions are contrary to mine or not.
Nicely written piece. “Run to it.” Or some say say..lead from the front. Soldiers understand this comittment. What caught my eye is the polarization piece.. where everyone has a view and wants to be right..or heard..or hv a place. Or just can. Tribalism is back.. Txs for sharing.
This resonates deeply with me. Having the courage to lead and bring direction through our leadership in times of uncertainty. But how do we do that in a largely individualistic society??
Feel the fear, push past it to create the change you desire to see…
Thanks for a thought provoking post.
I will apply this principles. I will work on the area, ” Run to it.” I have the tendency to avoid and when there is a tension in communication, I intended to protect myself and react with a loud tone of my voice to be heard and failed to listen intently.
I have been blessed with this article. Thank you so much John. This is truly helpful.