Unite or Divide

As a leader, you tend to have two choices – do I unite the people I lead or divide them?

Uniting people when you are leading huge communities or nations is actually not great strategy in most times. Our natural instincts encourage us to seek out divides and this is especially true in times of distress. And, in every century, we’ve seen plenty of leaders take the divide strategy. Adolf Hitler was probably the poster child of the divisive leader in the last hundred years. But, history offers many such examples – as a student of Indian history, I am painfully aware that “divide-and-rule” was colonial Britain’s chosen strategy to colonize India in the 19th century.

You can see why leaders pursue divisive strategies. They work fantastically well in the short term in most times. But, in the long run, however, they crash and burn. Organizations that become overly political stop innovating and performing. Countries that become divisive struggle to make progress. For all the negative aspects of the human condition that dominate during a period of time, one thing is for certain – humanity always triumphs in the long run. But, it is hard to play for the long term – just ask Angela Merkel. Despite showing humanity and leadership, she has only been losing popularity within Germany.

That is why it takes so much character to be a great leader of a nation. That is also why we deservedly sing the praises of Abraham Lincoln years after his passing. He could have done just fine as a leader by not abolishing slavery. But, in doing so and in resisting short term populism, he became great.

As I spend time in the US during this presidential campaign, I hear many surprised voices at the amount of support Donald Trump’s campaign seems to be receiving. The more I think of it, the more I realize that it doesn’t surprise me as much as it did a couple of months ago. We’ve seen this trend all over the world post the recession – every country has pushed for more protectionism. Even Singapore, which is about as pragmatic as a nation can get, became a touch more protectionist to appease popular sentiment. Why should the US be any different?

Brandon Stanton, the founder of “Humans of New York” had a powerful open letter to Donald Trump today, in which he said something insightful – “You are not a ‘victim’ of the very anger that you’ve joyfully enflamed for months. You are a man who has encouraged prejudice and violence in the pursuit of personal power.”

Leaders who choose prejudice and violence do so because it serves them well in the short run. They couldn’t care less about the downstream effects because they will always be insulated from them. The “divide-and-rule” policy eventually led to the separation of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many lives were lost due to these separations and they continue to be lost to this day.

The leaders who caused that have come and gone. But, the people have to live with those choices.

It is up to us to choose wisely.