Office Politics

The Trouble With Divisive Leadership

Workplaces are becoming more political, and that's never a good thing.
The Trouble With Divisive Leadership
Image credit: Martin Barraud | Getty Images

Everyone talks about bringing together our divided nation, to no avail. Sadly, that troubling trend is spreading to the workplace, where more and more CEOs feel emboldened to push their own political ideology. Never mind the risk of disrupting their organizations and alienating a portion of their stakeholders.

The question is, why? If we all realize the damage it does, why stoke the flames of discord within our culture and our companies?

Not surprisingly, I’ve seen this same phenomenon occur time and again over the years, albeit on a much smaller scale than the national level. I’ve seen it happen within organizations big and small. They all had one thing in common: a failure of leadership. In the absence of competent leadership, warring factions step in to fill the void.

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Think about it. Pretty much anyone can get their friends and supporters to follow them. But strong leaders have the ability to bring their detractors on board, as well. They somehow manage to bring all their stakeholders together and unite them under a common vision. That’s just what good leaders do.

In the absence of strong leadership, organizations inevitably begin to splinter, usually into two groups. Why two? After one, two is the next most stable organizational construct. The more factions you have, the more chaotic things become and the greater risk that the organization will devolve into anarchy and self-destruct.

The problem with America is that we haven’t had effective leadership -- in the White House or in Congress -- for the past four administrations. Don’t just take my word for it. According to Gallup, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been about the most polarizing presidents ever. That’s why our nation is so ideologically split.

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Perhaps to fill the leadership void, more and more business leaders are going public with their political views. That’s not a problem, as long as they keep it out of their business. Otherwise, they risk harassing or disaffecting perhaps half their employees, and possibly their customers and investors, as well. That is never a good thing.

After the election, GrubHub CEO Matt Maloney sent a strong anti-Trump email to all employees: “I absolutely reject the nationalist, anti-immigrant and hateful politics of Donald Trump,” he wrote. “If you do not agree with this statement then please reply to this email with your resignation because you have no place here.”

That did not go over well. The online food delivery company’s stock dropped like a rock amid calls for a boycott on Twitter. Maloney later tried to clarify, saying he didn’t mean that anyone who voted for Trump should quit, but the damage was done. It was a polarizing move. An unforced error, and no good came of it.

The same is true of dysfunctional executives who, by failing to lead effectively, allow their companies to splinter and descend into political infighting. I can tell you dozens of stories about CEOs who lacked the skillset to actually lead their organizations. They never end well.

One publicly-traded corporation I consulted for many years ago was so dysfunctional that every issue devolved into endless debate and analysis paralysis. In the rare event that a decision was actually reached, opposing executives would outwardly support the plan while sabotaging it behind the scenes.

That company ended up hitting a wall. It stopped growing, lost market share and ended up being acquired for a fraction of what it was worth in its heyday. The problem was a classic combination of the Peter Principle and cronyism: The CEO had reached his level of incompetence and the board of directors was in his back pocket.

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It’s no coincidence that introducing politics into a corporation has a divisive and destabilizing influence, but poor leadership has the same effect, breeding political infighting and discord. That’s why playing politics and political player are pejorative terms in a business context.

People often say that you can’t use business or management analogies in politics because nations are not the same as corporations. Perhaps that’s true, but the effect of leadership failure on any organization of people is the same: Polarization, instability, and if left unchecked, destruction.