I recently visited with former Cisco CEO, John Chambers, at his Silicon Valley house. In his office he had four massive books filled with letters from U.S. presidents, prime ministers and business leaders thanking him for his advice and friendship. The letters were written by leaders across political and ideological lines.

I turned to Chambers and asked, "In this divided climate, is it possible to disagree and still be friends?"  

"It's not only possible, but if you don't learn how to do it as a leader, you'll have a problem in your company," he said.

Chambers calls healthy disagreement "constructive friction." In any business, organization and yes, family, people will disagree--often vociferously-- over a wide range of issues. When arguments get out of control, it tears teams apart. Great leaders don't create more division; they align their teams to pursue a common purpose. 

1. Find common ground

Before Chambers enters a meeting, his assistant creates a playbook of notes containing bios on every person. Most important, he puts a lot of effort into finding an area of interest to connect with each person in a meeting, lunch or dinner. "You must be willing to emotionally connect with people--to really listen to their challenges and to share your stories, too."

This strategy reminds me of a conversation I had with famous TED speaker and human rights attorney, Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson talks about subjects that make some people uncomfortable. He defuses potentially fiery encounters by finding connections between himself and the audience.

For example, Stevenson often talks about his grandmother who he credits for his self-esteem, identity and purpose. When I asked Stevenson why he frequently tells stories about his grandmother, he said, "Because everyone has a grandmother. It's an instant connection." It's hard to be angry with someone you can relate to. You'll also be more receptive to their point of view.

In a new MasterClass on campaign strategy, two political foes who became friends share their insights. David Axelrod was the chief strategist behind Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. Political consultant Karl Rove ran the presidential campaign for George W. Bush. The two strategists see the world very differently and disagree on just about every topic, but they're friends built a relationship over a sad, but shared, experience.

Axelrod read Rove's autobiography and found "a painful point in common." Both Axelrod and Rove had one parent who committed suicide. Axelrod sent Rove an email and attached a eulogy that he wrote about his father who had taken his life. The two decided to team up to talk publicly about suicide prevention. "One of the things that ails our politics is that we tend to demonize people on the other side because we don't really know them," says Axelrod.

In politics or business, get to know the person on the opposing side. You'll find that you share more in common than you might think.

2. Attack ideas, not people

In the Axelrod/Rove MasterClass, Axelrod acknowledges that he generally disagrees with Rove. "That's the great thing, though.We can have a contest of ideas and still respect each other as people." 

Axelrod's observation reminds me of the relationship between two U.S. Supreme Court Justices who were on completely opposite ends of the ideological spectrum--Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia.

Ginsburg wrote the forward to a book of speeches titled, Scalia Speaks.  Ginsburg writes that she disagreed "in considerable part" with Scalia's ideology from the first time she saw him speak. "But his acumen, affability, and high spirits captivated me."

Ginsburg and Scalia became "best buddies" and often traveled together with their spouses and families. Ginsburg explained that while they "attacked ideas," they did not attack each other as people. In fact, they made each other's arguments stronger. "When we disagreed, my final opinion was always clearer and more convincing than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia homed in on all the soft spots, energizing me to strengthen my presentation."

"If our friendship encourages others to appreciate that some very good people have ideas with which we disagree, and that, despite differences, people of goodwill can pull together for the well-being of the institutions we serve and our country, I will be overjoyed," writes Ginsburg.

Many people lash out in anger when faced with others who disagree with their opinion. Transformative leaders are different--they find ways of bridging the divide to bring people together. It's up to you to decide what type of leader you'd like to be.

Published on: Jan 2, 2019