In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell used the term thin slicing to describe a focused intuitive knowledge that allowed an apparent unthinking judgment. There is another kind of judgment, another intuitive mental faculty that is even more important quality of leaders in today’s world. I will simply call it broad slicing, the ability to slice across an organization and see the connections, the need for solutions that deal, not with a very narrow area of knowledge, but with knowledge of the whole, knowledge that unifies effort. The behavior of great leaders is rarely that of thin slicing, it is much more commonly that of creating broad unifying effect, the ability to create broad slices that serve as mechanisms around which diverse groups and individuals can form unified effort. It is the unity of effort, as every great coach or general has understood, that wins in the competitive field.
It is broad slicing that is the glue that holds companies and societies together in a unified whole. The failure to recognize or create broad slices is one reason both companies and societies fall apart. Corporate strategy went through a period during which portfolio management was the preferred corporate strategy. This was the logical (or illogical) basis for conglomerates such as ITT under Harold Geneen who believed that there didn’t need to be any link between business units owned by a corporation other than financial. These corporations were, essentially, diversified mutual funds. It is generally accepted that this approach depleted shareholder value. The absence of broad slices resulted in division and disintegration. The added value of a conglomerate today, a multi-business unit corporation, is precisely in the sharing of core competencies or capabilities – some core technology or market that can add value across business units. Devotion to common markets or technologies are broad slices that give a reason for unified effort.
In the political world it is the difference between the liberation of Poland and the liberation of Yugoslovia, and possibly Iraq. The people of Poland were keenly aware of the broad slices that linked them as a people – language, religion, common history and culture. In Yugoslovia these unifying mechanisms operated in reverse and we know the result. Today we are witnessing the struggle to create broad slices across Iraq that can hold the three primary populations together in some form of unified whole. Any country must be held together by either authoritarian force (former Iraq, Soviet Union, etc.) or by the existence or creation of broad slices, common desires, interests, needs, philosophy or religion, that create an internal desire for affiliation.
Great leaders, from Alexander to George Washington, have had an intuitive, if not intellectual, understanding of the need to define and reinforce broad slices. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, as well as other Founding Fathers, spoke eloquently about the need to focus on unifying themes, rather than focusing on the divisive force of parties – “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effect of the Spirit of Party, generally.” “This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.”
What Washington recognized is that political parties tend to focus on narrow interests that have strong appeal to the emotions (gun control, abortion, etc.) and by that very process they will divide themselves from others whom they then demonize. This process is the process of division and disintegration, the root cause of the decline of all great cultures and the very process Washington feared enough to make the central theme in his closing remarks.
What are the broad slices that might serve as mechanisms of united effort in our country?
If the country were a business it would be focused on developing its core competencies as its primary source of competitive advantage and its productivity or efficiency.
What are the core competencies of our nation? This should be the subject of a healthy debate, just as it is in companies. One option is the following: we have succeeded in global competition because of our ability to develop new technologies and the entrepreneurial application of those technologies. That is our core competence and it is based on the quality of our education system and government support of research. (Yes… semi-conductors, the Internet, bio-technology and other key technologies are the result of government supported efforts!) This is not a “left” or “right” issue, it is an issue of the health and wealth of our nation. Which leader is focusing on the positive process of developing the mechanisms of wealth creation in this country, versus the defensive mindset of repelling enemies, some real and some imagined?
Alan Greenspan is rightly focused on productivity as a key sign of the health of our economy. However, he is focused primarily on labor productivity rather than the productivity of energy or capital. Making energy utilization more efficient is an obvious need, if not a crisis, that again is neither liberal nor conservative. General Electric has made the business of alternative energy and energy efficiency a primary corporate strategy. This is a broad slice through GE and the same unifying strategy can apply to the nation. We should be judging our leaders based on their ability to develop workable and thorough strategy for the productivity of all energy resources in our country.
Both the development of our core competencies and promotion of efficient use of resources could be broad slices upon which national leaders could unite energy and effort. Just as corporate leaders do well by focusing on the linking, unifying broad slices that result in competitive success, our political leaders would do well to focus less on the sources of division and more on the sources of common interest and affiliation. But, for this to happen the press and the American public need to be less obsessed by the distinctions between left and right, much of which is imaginary, and focus more on the very real nature of leadership that creates unity of energy and effort across a diverse culture.