President-elect Joseph Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris say they want to unite a divided America. That’s a monumental task, not only because of the high level of partisanship in the United States but also because of the universal dynamics of losing — and the temptations of winning. Switching which party is in control is a lot like a hostile takeover. For all the differences between politics and business, the human and organizational dynamics are strikingly similar. So are the leadership lessons.
Being on the losing side of anything can be a painful blow to pride. People fear reduced status, punishment, and loss. This can lead to destructive anger and negativity. Being on the winning side has its own traps. Those whose group “wins” can be tempted to gloat while monopolizing the spoils, marginalizing the other side, and letting followers call for crushing opponents.
In the takeovers I’ve studied, the transition of power is rarely smooth. Often there’s a parade of disgruntled employees, defecting customers, and legal battles fought on behalf of entrenched management. Some became international incidents, with governments weighing in to protect their own nation’s companies, as happened when Kraft Foods acquired Cadbury or InBev took over Anheuser-Busch. To avoid destructive divisiveness, leaders of the winning team must act quickly to heal wounds and create one enterprise.
Career politicians might feel that there are incentives to encourage wide divides. But if leaders can make it worthwhile for people to unite across divides and get to work, everyone wins. A culture of fear and division depresses overall performance. Ponder the fate of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop, the cost cutter whose book was appropriately titled Mean Business. He was drummed out of Sunbeam, a hostile takeover gone wrong. (Sunbeam failed to survive as an independent company.) Being mean doesn’t raise productivity. Anger and resentment don’t improve anyone’s quality of life.
Some leaders manage hostile transitions with less carnage than others. They remain laser-focused on uniting people to do the work at hand, rather than continuing on a destructive path. If their counterparts at the top of the other side refuse to cooperate, they find allies below the top and include them in a new coalition of decision makers. These unifying CEOs don’t focus on revenge, even if their followers fantasize about it. The political model is President Nelson Mandela in South Africa, who reached out to whites to join him in creating one nation, even when some members of his Black party called for revenge.
Consider a classic success story involving dramatic protest and resistance: the takeover of a proud Asian bank by what its employees saw as an upstart acquirer. Upon getting the news, thousands of workers and managers shaved their heads and took to the streets to leave piles of hair in front of the acquiring bank’s headquarters. The acquiring bank’s leaders could have retaliated with massive firings, but they didn’t. Instead, they committed to a rare power-sharing agreement, with equal representation on management teams. They emphasized the talent that the other side brought. They also agreed to delay full integration so that the target could keep its name, and they increased compensation for the bank. Numerous retreats and strategy discussions, all focused on the larger goal of future growth, softened differences and created agreement about what problems needed to be solved.
Some on the “winning” side thought that this bending over backwards to appease the “losing” side was foolish. But it turned out to be the foundation for an enviable united force that integrated on its own, well before the formal process. Each group put the other’s flag in its branches, and together they developed joint plans for innovation. With disparities reduced and a focus on shared values and prosperity, the bank went on to become a regional leader.
Across numerous industries, the same positive pattern can prevail. When a once-unsuccessful, now profitable consumer products company was bought by a larger, less profitable company, employees in the target firm didn’t like the feeling that their accomplishments were diminished. They denigrated the culture of the acquirer. Key people announced that they wouldn’t move to the new headquarters. On the acquiring side, employees were equally frank about their disdain for the target’s operating practices. After the “losing” CEO and some of his team left, leaders of the “winning” team identified a set of principles for uniting the two sides. These included finding the best talent, wherever it came from, and adopting successful practices from the target company. Leaders invested in new, better offices that neither side owned, so that everyone could start fresh and develop new relationships.
Leadership that unites people and bridges divides emphasizes three key elements.
Identity. Help people develop a new, shared identity by emphasizing big goals for the future that they can participate in and benefit from. In the planning process, create occasions for personal connection. Meet on the other side’s territory.
Inclusion. Start new projects with mixed groups. A little power sharing goes a long way. A common task goes even further. Don’t waste time trying to convert those who remain recalcitrant. Find potential sympathizers and pick up their support. Let them see that there is another, more positive path.
Investment. Nothing demonstrates commitment more than visible showcase projects. Building new infrastructure and improving facilities in areas that would otherwise feel left behind signals to skeptics that the future holds promise.
Avoiding harsh rhetoric, treating people with dignity and respect, finding common ground, and investing in improvement for everyone — this sounds like the moral thing to do. It is also highly pragmatic. As the history of growth enterprises shows, in the long run uniters create more value than dividers. Biden and Harris say that they want to govern for the benefit of everyone. Their actions can demonstrate that.