“The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation. Things you think are separate and different are actually one and the same.
We are all one people. But we live as if divided.”
The Last Airbender
All you have to do is turn on TV or read some critique of America <or read any email espousing the evils of the Obama administration> and you will find something about ‘the great divide.’ This is the belief that the American president has increased racial divide and income inequality.
I assume that any business leader who has managed any significant sized organization, like myself, kind of chuckle at the people who write this shit.
I am not a huge Obama fan but, in general, presidents get blamed for shit they have absolutely no control over. Suffice it to say any leader gets blamed for shit they often have no control over.
Here is a business truth <which I painfully learned … but, luckily, learned relatively early on>.
When a leader/manager gets hired it is typically to ‘fix’ something. Not many people get hired because things are going great and nothing should be changed.
But when a new leader walks into their new office that leader learns very quickly, and harshly, there are typically three active narratives:
– The personal narrative: I <the leader> want to do some things differently, and better, and want to inspire the change I believe would make the organization better.
– The employee narrative: all the crap they believe is wrong with the business and how it is being run.
– The ‘internal competition’ narrative: there may not be other managers actively competing with you as a new leader but there is always a competitive ‘what we believe needs to be changed to make us better’ narrative <and the entrenched beliefs based on their tenure at the organization>.
But let me focus on the employee, the people, and their narrative.
Because I will also say new leaders do enable things and have the ability to bring forth discussion on issues that in the past have not been a priority or have simply not had the forum to be discussed.
I would note that is the same with every new president.
I would note that is the same with any new business leader.
Just think about America as an example.
When America elected a black president I would argue he did not enable what is often called ‘the great divide’ <more racism than in the past> but rather it permitted those sitting, waiting for their moment to discuss what is important <to them and to society> to step forth and speak. I would also note that just as you & I are angry, frustrated and loud after sitting in a waiting room for 4 hours for an appointment we felt we had committed to days ago whomever is now stepping up to discuss is frustrated, angry and loud.
This is tapping into the ‘employee/people narrative.’ Simply enabling ‘what is’ and bringing it to the discussion table where it has been sitting in the waiting room frustrated for its appointment for years.
Here is what a new leader faces.
There is often some, if not a lot, of truth in the people narrative.
We now know that for every dollar of wealth white families have, black families have a nickel. We know that being middle class does not immunize black families from exploitation in the way that it immunizes white families. We know that black families making $100,000 a year tend to live in the same kind of neighborhoods as white families making $30,000 a year.
We know that in a city like Chicago, the wealthiest black neighborhood has an incarceration rate many times worse than the poorest white neighborhood.
This is not a class divide, but a racist divide.
One of the toughest things to swallow when you assume new leadership is that your own personal narrative, and dreams/wishes/vision, are not only not embraced by everyone but they also have their own narrative <which they deem more important>.
I have never tried to lead or manage 300+ million but I have walked into new leadership responsibilities where not only the employee narrative had been sitting in the waiting room since 7:00 in the morning <and it was now 5 in the evening> but, also, the competitive narrative was unwaveringly combative and misdirected.
And I can honestly say it was … well … not easy.
I am not suggesting I am a great leader <because possibly a great leader can easily resolve such a great divide> but I would suggest that bridging this great a divide is not done easily nor is there a formulaic ‘great leaders know how to do “x” and get “y” alignment’ solution.
I say that to suggest not resolving a great divide doesn’t make you a crappy leader.
Sometimes the narratives have to just play out over time and the role you play as a leader is to permit the narrative to be voiced and nudge solutions along.
It would be awesome if the world could simply be divided between good people and bad people but, alas, it is not so.
Good people have bad ideas … and frustrations sometimes not articulated well.
Bad people sometimes have good ideas … and can actually be good on occasion.
A leader who fails to debate a business’ own standards and avoids the narrative is doomed for failure.
Even being open to the debate & discussion doesn’t guarantee success.
Sometimes narratives are so deep seeded or have been festering for so long that when they are released it is like a flood of angst, anger & frustration. None of which are easily resolved or even salved.
But what I would suggest is that a leader is not supposed to solve the divides.
Instead they create the best of the best organizations if they use the divides as a source of a multifaceted multidimensional strength.
“We are of course a nation of differences.
Those differences don’t make us weak. They’re the source of our strength.”
And, with that, I will close by highlighting two words – multifaceted multidimensional.
Great businesses, and countries, are multifaceted and multidimensional. I would suggest inherent in that strength are natural divides between the facets and the dimensions. Business people know that. And they don’t fight it but rather simply figure out a way to get all the squirrels herded in the same direction.
From the outside people may only see squirrels running around aimlessly.
From the inside you see squirrels digging up sustenance and storing it up at the nest for the benefit of the future survival and prosperity.
All that matters is that within the divides you maintain the intellectual and the soul. Ultimately that is the key to success.