There are two ways to lead people and drive impact.
By dividing people. Create a mutual enemy and lead a crusade to conquer it. Turn it into a life or death situation — the sense of urge unleashes unconditional support. Conquering, winning at-any-cost, is all that matters.
By uniting people. Create a shared ambition and inspire people to build it with you. Turn it into a life quest — the journey to build something bigger than themselves unites people. The desire to leave a legacy is why people join a mission.
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Leaders have two choices — to unite or divide.
The Divide & Conquer Approach
The Latin phrase “Divide et impera” is as old as politics and war.
The divide your enemy so you can reign approach is attributed to Julius Cesar — he successfully applied it to conquer Gaul twenty two centuries ago (no typo). But he wasn’t the first one, nor the last one, to implement it.
Nicholas Machiavelli famously said: “Politics have no relations to moral.” The Italian politician and diplomate believed that, for a leader, it’s better to be feared than to be loved. He relied upon the art of manipulation to build followers and allies. The term Machiavellian became a synonym of acts marked by cunning or bad faith.
“One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” — Nicholas Machiavelli
Divisions are an illusion — they create a fictional reality. Conquerors are compulsive storytellers — they use every opportunity to feed anger and violence. However, deceiving tactics work in the short-term — in the long run, people end separating fiction from reality.
Creating a common enemy is the most effective way to divide people — leaders force us to choose between being in favor of or against its crusade. Hitler said: “Our strategy is to destroy the enemy from within, to conquer him through himself.” The delusional leader used the ‘them’ versus ‘us’ approach as an excuse to invade most European countries — conquerors succeed when they create two sides.
De-individuation is a group behavior when people fall prey to this type of leaders. Individuals let go of self-awareness and self-control to imitate others — the collective behavior takes over the individual judgment. Vandalism and persecution in Nazi Germany happened because one’s individuality became lost in the group identity.
The ultimate objective of divide and conquer is gaining and maintaining power by breaking up groups into smaller and less powerful ones. Conquerors will do whatever it takes to win — they don’t care about the future. Like Attila the Hun said: “There, where I have passed, the grass will never grow again.”
The Unite & Build Approach
The opposite of divide and conquer is ‘unite and build.’
Builders see winning as a reward for doing what’s right. They focus on creating a legacy — financial results are a result of making the world a better place too.
Fred Kofman warns us about the cult of the leader and how power corrupts — conquerors see people as followers who should follow their ‘orders.’ Builders take a different approach — they don’t tell you to work for them, but for the mission.
As the author of Conscious Business explains: “Leaders can inspire us to give our best, but they cannot force me to surrender my soul. They tell you join me and follow the mission, not me.”
Builders are driven by a purpose bigger than themselves. They focus on serving the mission, not people — the impact on society is more important than quarterly earnings. Is not that the latter doesn’t matter, but making money is not enough.
A purpose-driven organization is one that people not only want to show up to work but have a clear reason to do so. Simon Sinek challenges organizations by telling them that people don’t buy what they do; they buy why they do it. The author of Start with Why said: “Those are the organizations that change the world.”
Builders act in ways that are personally meaningful and socially beneficial. Studies show that when leaders are connected to a meaningful purpose, employees are more likely to connect to it as well. Toms is a perfect example — its mission is to sell shoes, but the founder’s purpose is to provide free footwear to people in need.
However, this approach requires to embrace vulnerability and make courageous decisions. A couple of years ago, Patagonia ran a campaign against consumerism — it encouraged customers to think twice before buying another jacket. The outwear manufacturer believed it would be hypocritical to stand for environmental change without addressing mindless consumption.
Promoting unity doesn’t mean brainwashing people or embracing conformity.
Groupthink is a dangerous behavior that eliminates conflict to reach consensus — it lowers the ability to evaluate alternatives critically. Individuals let go or silence their opinions, ideas or beliefs to please the collective thinking. Builders can, consciously or not, put immense pressure on their advocates — when the mission becomes unquestionable, people opt to stay silent.
The other consideration with purpose-driven business is that most companies say they are, but very few mean it. Pretending to be a builder when you are not, can be as damaging, or more, than being a divider.
The ultimate objective of unite and build is not gaining power but empower people to achieve something bigger through collaboration, not competition. Edward de Bono coined the term ‘co-opetion’ to describe cooperation between competitors — builders can win without killing their enemy. As de Bono said: “Companies that solely focus on competition will ultimately die. Those that focus on value creation will thrive.”
The Two Sides of Leaders
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” — Aristotle
Builders inspire people to follow a bigger mission; Conquerors want followers — they want people to follow them. Builders want to create impact — they encourage people to follow a larger purpose than themselves.
Consider these two leadership types as the sides of the same coin. Sometimes the situation might look blurry.
During times of distress, division can drive union. Churchill turned Hitler into the mutual enemy to unite his fellow citizens.
However, once the World War II ended, England needed a builder — everyone wanted a purpose-driven future. War weariness worked against Churchill — he went from world hero to not being reelected.
A month ago, I wrote about the ‘cheating crisis’ that’s affecting education, work, and sports. Many people pushed back: “if ‘winners’ cheat, why shouldn’t I?”
In my line of work, I encourage organizations and leaders to embrace a builder style — the first step is to get rid of the belief that you can’t win without conquering.
Should we do what’s right or what’s going to deliver more results?
You have to choose — you can’t flip the coin and expect it to land on its edge.
Even those who promote progress feed division — many politicians and executives are conquerors in disguise. They want to seduce us with a purposeful mission, but their actions do anything but unite us. Left vs. right. AI vs. humans. Christians vs. Muslims. Domestic vs. Foreign.
Seeding intolerance is an effective, yet harmful, way to gain more power. Leaders narratives seduce us into rejecting rather than embracing differences — they win when we become narrow-minded.
Many people disagree though — they see divisions as something normal, nothing to worry about. Maybe public opinion itself is distorted by a divide and conquer mentality.
Be Intentional. Your Choice
Do you lead by dividing or by uniting people?
Once you realize these two options, it’s your choice. You can’t have both.
Dualism is a dangerous scenario. If you embrace the likes of Machiavelli, be honest about it. Don’t hide your style. There’s nothing worse than a divide and conquer leader pretending to be an inspirational builder.
If you are a builder, by choice or by design, the same applies to you. Speak up. Don’t fight fire with fire — avoid portraying yourself as the ‘good guy.’ By positioning the ‘other side’ as evil, you end up playing the same toxic game — focus on build something bigger than yourself, not on attacking Machiavellian leaders.
You can be successful by either conquering or building. Your style is your choice. But you have to be intentional.
Let people choose if they want to follow you or join a mission.
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