Can you be decisive without being divisive?
The etymology of decide is to cut. Decisive implies taking actions that have significant consequences and prospective risk.
Does that mean that a decisive leader is necessarily divisive? The latter implies sowing hostility or anger.
In theory a person can be decisive yet not divisive. In practice, though, this feat is so rarely achieved as to be disorienting.
This practical question comes to mind in reading reviews of management changes underway at Apple.
Breaking Eggs, Making Omelettes
Change inevitably occasions new alignments of interests, even new understandings of fundamental realities.
Sustainable leadership effectiveness built on decisive action can re-make the weather, can re-create the ecosystem. It may be viewed as divisive by those whose interests or contributions are being reset, even if, objectively speaking it’s a creative process.
What’s Your Motivation?
So often the motivation to spur change has a reactive foundation. It may be anger. It may be outrage. It may be a sense of injustice. It may be a sense of time running out. Such motivations may be apt and understandable; they are nonetheless negative.
A challenge: decisive actions resulting from such motivations may, to that extent, have a tangible self-centered aspect. That may incline toward being unnecessarily divisive in the eyes of objective observers. One might even lose prospective supporters. There may be less to attract much less engage them.
An opportunity: create motivation for decisive action that is based on a larger conception of service. This can make one’s own, direct contribution greater. It may also draw in others’ energy and ingenuity.
Many Are Divisive… Yet Not Decisive
Today it’s common to see many would-be leaders who are divisive, yet not decisive. They occasion quarrels over trifles, yet do not fight over essentials. Indeed the resulting divisions, the bickering over small things, may serve the interests of a status quo that could not survive disciplined, well-directed scrutiny and discussion.
This is what we tend to see in American government in recent years. The partisan alignments vary, but the underlying interest group configurations and dominance remain unscathed. This is true even for matters where broad majorities of the public are seeking change through variations, even volatility in their voting patterns.
An Ideal: Decisive, Not Divisive
An ideal is to be decisive, while not being divisive. Key relationships are tended to. They adapt, wrapping around a new trellis to guide their changing direction.
Lessons along these lines can be found from effective political leaders. Their experiences, on a large scale, are transferable to the more confined arenas of business.
Jacqueline Kennedy recounted a conversation with her husband, President John Kennedy. She privately vented her anger, as a loyal spouse might, about criticism of her husband from another politician. President Kennedy reminded her that someone who’s an enemy today might well be a friend tomorrow. Bridges must not be burned.
Theodore Roosevelt stands as one of the most consequential presidents in American history. His joyous use of power–and his public speaking about his opponents and their motivations–could be robust, to put it gently. Those who stood in his way might well regard him as decisive and divisive.
At the same time, TR’s contemporaries often spoke of his “sweetness.” By that they meant something like what we would recognize as “charm,” though perhaps with an added dollop of affection, of warmth. Roosevelt strove to master his interactions with others, including adversaries for whom he had little respect. The rather spectacular exceptions, when he lost control to anger in public, underscore his ongoing discipline.
Abraham Lincoln stands as a paragon in this, as in so much else. He said the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. His Second Inaugural address sought to bind the wounds of a feverishly bloody Civil War that was not yet concluded. His transition from warlord to peacemaker was presented in the context of a vision he wrought from the chaos and incoherence of battle.
Ronald Reagan was seen by many as a person of paradox. This area touches one of those mysteries.
Reagan’s aide and biographer Martin Anderson memorably sketched the president as “warmly ruthless.” That is to say, Reagan could render consequential decisions on policy or personnel, while maintaining composure and kindness, even geniality.
By not personalizing such matters, Reagan kept attention turned to results, to those he was striving to serve. Those who disagreed with his decisions might well conclude that, as much as they might be disappointed, Reagan was earnestly striving to achieve large goals. He could gain the benefit of the doubt of observing third-parties who would trust his motivations.
Avoiding unnecessary division, Reagan signaled that he was not limited to others’ definitions of appropriate alliances. It gave him running room, areas where he might well gain new ground.
What About You?
Are you able to be decisive without being divisive? Do you think it matters to try?
If you think that being decisive must by its nature be divisive, what is your point of view based upon?
One cannot control others’ reactions. One can foresee them and attempt to salve them. One can manage one’s own framing of situations, one’s own reactions to others.
One can be decisive without being divisive. It can be what Theodore Roosevelt called a “realizable ideal.” In striving for it, one may become more effective at making change as part of a large conception of service.
Can You Be Decisive — Without Being Divisive?