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How Leaders Unify

The Biden administration has made unifying the nation as their centerpiece for the entire nation. The current focus on unity has led my to do some researching/thinking on exactly how does one, as a leader, heal and unify. While we are not the president, we are everyday leaders who face the unification challenge as well.

For example, leaders must unify when:

  • There is divergence and emotion around strategic direction.
  • The workforce splinters into factions such as union/nonunion or salary/hourly or one department versus another.
  • Interpersonal conflicts arise and people take sides and form coalitions.
  • Organizations, divisions, departments and/or teams are merged and integration forces two dissimilar cultures into one.
  • Internal competition threatens to undermine the effectiveness of whole.

It is helpful to keep in mind that unity means united, not uniform.

Unity means the state of being unified or joined as whole. Uniform is always remaining the same in all cases and is unchanging in form or character. Uniform is cookie cutter sameness. Unity is a quilt stitched from a variety of fabrics, colors and textures into a beautiful whole.

Unity can be achieved with the loss of form, function or uniqueness. In other words, we do not need to be uniform to be united.

A beautify symphonic performance (the whole) is only possible with up to 20 different kinds of instruments (the part). The violin is dramatically different that the cymbal. The cymbal is different than the flute. Yet when playing together as a unified whole, the result is stunning.

When we demand uniformity, we undermine unity.

Uniformity is grey, lifeless, one-dimensional. Would you listen to music that only had one tone? What would the symphony be with only one instrument? If a song had only one musical phrase, how long would it hold your attention?

The cause of disunity.

What fractures groups of human beings is the trap of seeing things as purely black and white, right or wrong, my way or no way. We can fall into that trap because it is easier (no thinking required). We can fall into that trap because it elevates us and makes the other “less than”. We can fall into that trap because we so want to belong to a group that we have shifted into tribalism.

Agreeing on a bigger aim for each of our individual and unique contributions creates unity.

When we agree about the bigger thing we want to create, maintain and be a part of, we can be free to allow each element of the whole to play an individual part. By being a part of a jazz ensemble, the jazz musician is agreeing to contributing in a different way than the first chair trombonist in the symphony. The rock band drummer can show up in a different way than the drum line drummer. As such, the question for the leader is what is the container for the work we are doing together? What is the frame? What is the bigger thing that gives shape and form to our work together?

Defining that bigger thing that unifies us can be difficult. Creating a shared understanding is difficult (and time consuming). And then living into it is even more difficult.

Not taking the time and effort to define and articulate and live into that bigger thing may be expedient, but it exacts more and more over time. Disunity breeds discontentment, misalignment and a thousand small battles. It’s a slow bleed that drains the life and energy from a team, a department or organization.

Luckily for you and I our scope is not the entire country, but the organizations we lead or are a part of. So let’s not make it any more big or daunting that it need be. Don’t wait for the vision to be cast from on high…instead start with something your group can tackle and grow from there. This past blog gives you a step-by-step process to cast vision with your team.

Yet the effort is worth the reward. For teams and departments and organizations (and countries) that understand the glue that holds them together are aligned. They allow individuals to contribute their best to the whole without succumbing to a forced uniformity.

Unity starts with a shared vision and is a lived experience that demands something of everyone.

Unifying without forcing uniformity requires some leadership jujitsu. Notice the leaders that do this well, and I suspect you will leaders with clear expectations about what it takes to be a part of the group. Insisting on mutual respect and civil discussions. Some you are likely to see include:

  • Different points of view are encouraged, and robust dialogue is expected.
  • The voices of the voiceless are sought and amplified, ensuring all are included and heard.
  • Deep curiously to explore other points of view and consider them without judgement.
  • A willingness to sit with, be with and work through the tough conversations and tension it generates.
  • Sees this tension as an opportunity to imagine creative, new solutions.
  • The humility to accept that they are not always right or that there are other ways to approach the situation.

These are behaviors the leader role models. They are behaviors that are explicitly stated and groomed. Acting this way become the norm or the culture of the group. Deviation from these standards is not allowed to continue, as counter-behaviors can quickly corrode the unity that has been nurtured.

To use a previous analogy, the first chair violinist cannot show up and improvise. The jazz guitarist that requires a score cannot continue.

So the big questions for you and your leadership boils down to these three:

  1. What is the vision or framing that unifies your team?
  2. How do you weave each person’s individual strengths and abilities into the bigger whole?
  3. What behaviors are required by each member of the team to create unity without demanding uniformity?

2 Responses

  1. I love the visual image this conjures: “Unity is a quilt stitched from a variety of fabrics, colors and textures into a beautiful whole.” Timely article and a good reminder that unity isn’t just a lofty goal but something we can put into daily practice.

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