• Thomas E. Anderson, II

Navigating Polarities in a Polarized Nation


While I am relieved that yesterday’s inaugural events resulted in a peaceful transition, I am also deeply concerned about the growing polarization and division in our nation.


This is not a political post, but a post for the folks who share this concern and would like to reframe their view of complex situations.


If that's the case, you may find this post intriguing or maybe even insightful.


I recently read a book that shed light on why our organizational and national “problems”, at times, do not get resolved.


In “Mastering Leadership,” Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams advised leaders to evolve the complexity of their consciousness to meet the growing complexity within organizations and their external environments.


Part of this evolution involves accepting and understanding the difference between solving problems and *managing polarities*. They explained it like this.


“Problems are solvable. There are usually a few optimal solutions that, once arrived at, admit to a stable solution.”


“Polarities are dilemmas. They are *not* solvable because a polarity is comprised of a tension between equally legitimate, but opposite, end points.”[1]


Centralized or decentralized management?

Conservative or liberal values?

Capitalist or socialist economies?


These are examples of polarities. They are dilemmas that can be placed on opposite ends of a spectrum.


Just because these ideals exist at polar opposite ends of a spectrum doesn’t mean we as leaders have to mirror that position. In fact, if we do, it limits our ability to work together. Now, for some, that may sound naïve for me to state, but it runs consistent with personal observation.


If a person digs their heels in at one pole, for example, there’s often an unwillingness to hear someone out who has dug in their heels at the opposite pole. To hear another person who has an opposite view, requires me to temporarily suspend my judgments that are informed by my ideals, interests and position on the topic.


How can this insight be applied in what many are calling a “polarized nation?”


In the words of one of my mentors, we keep changing the chef without realizing that the oven is broken. Even before attempting to fix the oven, replacing the oven light would help to see the situation more clearly.


Anais Nin put it this way: “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”


Whether in business, government, or non-profits, a start would be to change the way we view such situations by asking clarifying questions like:


· Is this a problem that can be easily solved?

· Or is this a dilemma that is difficult to solve?

· How can we effectively unpack the dilemma before trying to solve the problem(s)?

[1] Anderson, R.J. & Adams, W.A. (2016). Mastering leadership. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, p.40.


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