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Diversity Is Not Enough

Without unity, diversity devolves into chaos

DIVERSITY IN THE workplace is a very good thing … but only where unity exists to make that diversity effective.

Diversity is constantly being celebrated these days in companies and in our national conversations. HR departments require employees to participate in diversity training, sometimes annually. Federal laws exist to enforce its observance.

Any word that is the focus of so much attention needs careful definition for conversations to be meaningful.

What are we talking about?

For me, diversity means something like this: All people ─ regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, faith or non-faith, disability, or other personal characteristic ─ are welcome and accepted in the workplace with equal opportunities to perform and demonstrate their value to the organization and earn a fair living.

Good so far. I totally agree.

However, in real life I find that the concept of diversity spills over into other applications that are highly questionable, to say the least. No team or organization can succeed where there is diversity in purpose, objectives, or core values. On those matters, you must have unity, or the members’ efforts and behaviors will be at cross-purposes with one another, devolving into chaos.

Imagine a construction company attempting to build a building where various work crews are using different blueprints. It’s easy to imagine the kind of problems that would result. The building would be a total mess, if it were able to stand at all.

No, for people to work together toward achievable goals, you must have unity, likemindedness, on essential matters.

Illustrated on the national scale

You see it in the vicious, divisive debates on immigration. Angry voices shouting, “We are nation of immigrants!” Others, “We must secure our national borders!” Both sides have valid points to make. Both sides are also missing the main point. Neither side is getting anywhere, because they’re shooting past each other.

Of course, the United States is a nation of immigrants. Of course, we are diverse. In fact, we are the most diverse nation in the history of the world, racially, religiously, ethnically, and linguistically.

The real question is how such a nation could ever survive and thrive. History is littered with accounts of would-be nations that have torn themselves apart over ethnic and religious diversity. Think back to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, or the break-up of the Soviet Union. History shows that where there is great diversity in a population, the only way that nation can be held together is by brutal force.

So why has our nation served as the great exception? It’s been said that America is the only nation in history that was founded on an idea: The ideals asserted in our founding documents, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Among these are the dignity and rights of the individual, self-government by the people, and the rule of law. Being a human society, we have often fallen woefully short of those ideals, but that in no way invalidates them.

It is our American likemindedness that has enabled us to enjoy the most free, productive, and wealthy nation in history. Without that likemindedness, we’ll tend to go the same direction as Yugoslavia. It feels to me like that disintegration has already begun.

Our national motto, which you see every day on our currency, is E Pluribus Unum: “Out of many, One.” It seems that all we hear about these days is the E Pluribus (diversity). Without an equal emphasis and understanding of the Unum (unity), our future is not bright.

The source of unity

All aspiring leaders are interested in unity, but most misunderstand it. You don’t get unity by talking about “unity” (which, by the way, is why “unity” messages gassed by politicians don’t impress anyone or change anything). No leader can create unity directly, only indirectly. Unity is a by-product of people focusing on objects or ideas they have in common.

Unity is created the same way a symphony orchestra tunes together. In an average orchestra, you often have over 100 extremely diverse instruments. They don’t tune by each musician matching their instrument with another’s. It would take too long for one thing. And by the time you got around to all 100, the first ones would have lost their tuning.

No, here’s how they do it. First, each individual instrument must be in tune itself. An out-of-tune instrument will never be able to play successfully with others. Then, rather than having them tune to each other directly, the concert master signals the oboe to play an A. Then, each member of the orchestra tunes to that A. Automatically, they are then in tune with each other. The common focus created the musical unity.

The principle applied

These same principles explain how a leader can cultivate unity in a team, company, or organization. The instruments being in tune themselves represents core values and expectations for the individual. Certain attitudes and behaviors are expected norms for everyone. The whole orchestra tuning to the same note represents the organization’s purpose, mission, philosophies, and objectives.

When team members are applying their diverse talents, temperaments, and thinking toward common goals, great achievement is possible. They become a micro-example of E Pluribus Unum.

When you have likemindedness on purpose, philosophies, and values, members of the organization can be trusted to take independent action. Because they know what things are not debatable or negotiable, team members can make decisions and act with confidence, leading to rapid and often-dramatic progress. Boundaries and limits of freedom are defined.

Harmonizing diversity and unity

Several applications emerge for leaders who understand the proper place for both of these principles.

  • Leaders must cultivate a culture based on clearly defined principles and values

Every group has a culture. It’s not “If?” It’s “What kind?” What distinguishes cultures is whether they are constructed like a blueprint or developed accidentally; whether they are healthy or toxic; whether based on principles or run by personalities (often the wrong ones).

The best leaders don’t leave culture up for grabs. They take the lead to define a healthy values-based culture. Those sharply defined purposes and values form the basis for true unity as people align to them.

  • Leaders must value and exploit the power of diverse strengths

A team of unified people bringing diverse talents, gifts, and abilities to a common task will always be superior to one characterized by unity’s counterfeit, uniformity.

Peter Drucker was famous for saying that the purpose of leadership and organization “is to make strengths productive and weaknesses irrelevant.”

Author Marcus Buckingham was on the same track when he wrote, “Average managers play checkers. Great managers play chess.” He’s observing that all the pieces in checkers are identical; it doesn’t matter where you place them. On a chess board, however, you have pieces with diverse powers and abilities. Buckingham’s point is that effective leaders see their people as individuals with unique packages of knowledge and talents and seek to place them where they can be unleashed to the greatest effect. That’s the power of diversity.

  • Where you have established unity, you can and should encourage diverse judgments and opinions

While many leaders are afraid of being questioned or challenged, they don’t need to be where there are common commitments. In fact, it is one of the best things for a leader to cultivate the kind of atmosphere where people can speak up with confidence and without fear. People who tell you the truth about what they think are doing you a serious favor.


Unity can become unhealthy where there is pure uniformity in thinking and disagreement is prohibited. Whole groups, even whole nations, can go wrong together.

Diversity of thought and action without the unifying effect of common commitments leads to chaos and scattered efforts.

There is a place for both unity and diversity in teams and organizations. In fact, a harmony of each in its proper place is best.

E Pluribus Unum indeed! Li

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