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Leading in Divisive Times

SEU president shares four keys to effective leadership in a divisive season.

Dr. Kent Ingle is the president of Southeastern University and author of Framework Leadership, available now for pre-order. 

As pastors and leaders of Christian communities in the United States, we are currently faced with a divisive season in America. Political polarization has reached its peak. And, as a result, our congregations are entrenched into their “side” of the arguments. Our inboxes are flooded with chain letters from well-meaning individuals of every party urging us to vote on what they claim to be the “biblical” standard for American politics.

In times like these, many leaders suffer from a common curse: the ability to see all sides of the argument. This curse makes polarization the kryptonite of great leadership because it stalls out momentum. Many leaders who had incredible beginnings find themselves stuck at a fork in the road between polar-opposite choices, opinions and visions for their community. The ability to unify a community through times like this is necessary skill for a leader today.

It is critical for a leader to have a framework to help navigate these divisive times. A framework will clearly define the rules of engagement for opposing ideas and provide a safe place for leaders to examine the issues that are threatening to create division. If everyone on the team understands and agrees to the framework, then conflict can be transformed into constructive dialogue. At Southeastern University, here is the framework we use whenever we are faced with polarizing ideas.

1. Mission first.


The mission is the common denominator of the entire organization. Visions will change, cultures may vary, but the mission never changes. When faced with division, a leader must constantly remind the people of the mission they are on. At SEU, our mission is to “Equip students to discover and develop their divine design to serve Christ and the world through Spirit-empowered life, learning and leadership.” On our team, we may at times disagree on how to accomplish that mission, but at the end of the day we are all trying to achieve the same goal.

2. Listen before action.


Young and insecure leaders have a hard time listening to people with different opinions from themselves. They paint dissenters as evil to justify not letting their voice be heard. However, great leaders understand that just because people disagree it doesn’t make them evil or malicious. In divisive times, great leaders may disagree with ideas, but they will give everyone a chance to be heard.

3. Unity over uniformity.


The goal of a leader should never be uniformity but unity. As leaders we have to recognize that people will have different fundamental opinions and nothing will change who they are. Inexperienced leaders mistakenly try to force everyone into consensus before making a decision. Great leaders have the courage and conviction to make a decision even when there are those on the team who disagree with it. A great leader seeks to bring unity through a common mission, and by valuing and listening to people even when they fundamentally disagree. They give people the space to be different.

4. Embrace the polar opposites.


This is not the first time our country has been in a divisive situation like this. And, it most certainly will not be the last. The archetype of American leadership, President George Washington faced a deep polarization from Day One between his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, and his secretary of treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson was a rich, quiet, erudite 50-year-old statesman from rural Virginia who had been highly educated in Europe. Hamilton was a young 30-something extroverted, loudmouthed orphan from downtown New York who pulled himself up from poverty on a sugar cane plantation in the Caribbean. They disagreed on every political issue imaginable—including slavery, trade, immigration, the economy, and military action.

Yet, despite their intense polarization, Washington was able to bridle Jefferson and Hamilton and lead our young and fragile nation through their divisiveness. He did it by constantly reminding his team of their common mission, by giving everyone a chance to be heard, and by allowing his team to be different, but unified.

Leading through polarization is messy. In moments when passions are high, there will never be a clean, easy answer that makes everyone happy. Divisive times are something we simply cannot avoid as leaders. However, when given a safe and constructive space to disagree, leaders can harness the polarizations of their teams as a catalyst to move the organization forward. These times are the perfect opportunity for us as leaders to examine and tweak the frameworks our organizations operate within. The stronger and more clearly defined the framework, the better a leader can lead through divisive times.

Kent Ingle

Dr. Kent Ingle is the president of Southeastern University and author of Framework Leadership.