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The Danger of “Divide and Conquer” Leaders

June 19, 2020

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Weak and flawed leaders try to divide and conquer their followers.

Recent events in our country have indicated the importance of unifying leadership.  It is far too easy for society to come apart at the seamsDemocracy is a fragile experiment.  It’s extremely difficult when the environment is rife with the diversity of people, backgrounds, and opinions. It is far too easy to focus on what makes us different from one another than what we all have in common.  Of course, many governments operate from guiding principles set to paper in the distant past to help guide our actions, but words and actions are often in conflict.  In a similar fashion, business leaders, who have increasing leverage in a globally interconnected system of commerce, have a great capacity to bring countries and communities together or drive them apart.

In my many years studying leadership, nothing has troubled me more than the leader who takes a divide and conquer approach to their role.  Sadly, it is much easier to do this than bring people together.  For starters, you end up dealing with a much smaller constituency that is bound together by common threads of thinking.  In addition, stirring up negative energy seems much easier to do than sustaining positive momentum.  You can just unleash and stoke the fires of division rather than doing the challenging work of finding common ground and negotiating differing agendas.  As human beings, there are certain natural things that bind us together, but let’s never forget that lurking beneath the surface there are fears, worries, and apprehensions just waiting to seize an opportunity to appear.

Here are some common traits of “divide and conquer” leaders we should be on the lookout for and inhibit whenever possible.

  • They can be incredibly charming and persuasive when they need to be until you cross them.
  • They rationalize whatever they are doing in the service of some larger agenda which may be initially appealing but has more sinister long-term motives.
  • They strongly believe the ends justify the means.
  • Their only outcome is win-lose. Compromise to them is unfathomable.
  • They derive energy from pitting people against one another. They feel the bigger the chasm, the greater their opportunity.
  • Their language is always driving contrast, e.g., us versus them, good versus evil, weak versus strong, etc.
  • They rarely if ever acknowledge mistakes or setbacks. Vulnerability is a weakness to them and to be avoided at all costs.
  • They value loyalty versus competence in their subordinates who paradoxically are always expendable as it suits their purpose.
  • They hate receiving bad news and have a “shoot the messenger” mentality; someone besides them must always be to blame when something goes wrong.
  • They always have to be elevated above anyone else in their surrounding orbit. No one is more important than them and everyone should defer to their judgment.
  • Their first instinct is to attack whenever confronted with a different point of view and these attacks are usually personal in nature rather than substantive.
  • They have no interest in expanding their worldview and prefer information that validates what they already believe to be true (whether it is or not). Facts are always secondary to their agenda.
  • They believe everyone has a price and can be bought to serve their purpose. It genuinely surprises them when they come across people of strong unmovable convictions.
  • They are never satisfied that they have enough and must grow their own assets above all else.
  • Free and open competition is anathema to their wiring; they exhaust every opportunity to create an unfair advantage for their agenda.
  • They become experts at using the technology tools at their disposal to wreak havoc on their opponents and spread discontent.
  • Eventually, they use the cover of religion or some higher purpose, to justify their action. It always ends up as a good versus evil scenario.
  • They intuitively know that if you scare people, you can manipulate them, especially if you give them an enemy.

Our future is never assured and periods of relative calm at peace are not to be taken for granted. Thankfully, the arc of humankind has been on a positive trajectory despite the appearance of many bad “divide and conquer” leaders who have placed themselves and their narcissistic needs above the common good of their people.  There certainly have been bumps along the way, sometimes with extremely tragic consequences. What’s important is that we all learn the lessons of history, recognize when we are being manipulated for ill ends, and to quote one of America’s greatest leaders (Abraham Lincoln), we strive to find “the better angels of our nature.”  War is easy.  Peace is hard.

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