Most people in the business world have been told by teachers, managers, colleagues and business gurus that the single most important thing leaders have to get right is alignment. To accomplish anything, employees must agree about the mission, strategy and goals of an organization. Aligned employees are happy employees and happy employees are productive employees.
Simple, right? In a word, no. Many people mistake the comfortable feeling that alignment brings for the real conditions necessary for optimal performance.
A well-aligned, smoothly functioning team can do a bad job well or a job that shouldn’t be done at all. The Titanic, by all accounts, was being run smoothly and well when it collided with an iceberg and sank. Because the team of sailors believed the ship was unsinkable, they ignored the initial signs of danger until it was too late.
Ditto for Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that had one of the strongest cultures of teamwork and loyalty on Wall Street. The company hit its own virtual iceberg and sank, almost taking the entire global economy with it in 2008. The organization was also aligned around a belief in an unsinkable ship and the leaders were running it smoothly. Up until the moment water began pouring over the side and the ship began to tip into the ocean, the team was happy and satisfied with its lot.
Don’t misunderstand. Alignment is important. It’s necessary. A company cannot win with a team that is badly aligned. But it’s not sufficient. Achieving perfect or near-perfect alignment is not the end of the road. It’s merely the beginning.
Let’s take this a step further. Counter to conventional wisdom, the dirty little secret of leadership is that a leader’s time is not always best spent trying to help teams make nice and get along. They don’t tell students this in business school. Quite the contrary. Business school, like everywhere else in the management world, is constantly harping on the value of teamwork and alignment.
But in an environment where alignment is the only goal, alignment robs us of necessary dissent, of the checks and balances that mitigate risk and of the tensions that create innovation and sustainable value.
Tension is productive. A certain amount of healthy struggle is good for organizations and for individuals. Indeed, people and organizations perform optimally when they are under the right kinds and amounts of stress.
The concept of creative tension is not new. It’s in the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita. It’s been written about in the lives of artists, musicians and scientists who have created breakthroughs that have changed the world. The U.S. Constitution depends on it and we call on it as a motivating force every time we go out to vote. All successful treatises between nations — not to mention all successful relationships between people — work because it is possible and empowering to release the energy inherent in tension in creative ways.
It follows then that a key aspect of a leader’s job is to create the right battles and to make sure they are fought right. Right fights unleash the creative, productive potential of teams, organizations and communities. Right fights make for better possibilities and right fights lead to better results.
With alignment and properly managed tension, organizations hit a sweet spot and start realizing their potential. With right fights, organizations can achieve breakthrough performance, real innovation and leadership growth.
Right fights encourage diversity of views, they engender checks and balances, they inspire complex thinking and respect for difference. They are the cauldron in which new ideas are heated and mixed into the stew of new markets, processes and products. They are the fuel of human innovation, and they provide a rich training ground for future leaders.
Saj-Nicole Joni is an international business strategist and advisor and Damon Beyer is a senior executive advisor with Booz and Company. This piece was excerpted from their book: The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.