Leading in Polarized Times

By John Maxwelldivided

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.

  • Courage

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.

Will you?