How Great Leaders Leverage Diversity to Build Better Teams and Drive Results

Most of us have heard the expression the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but what does that truly mean and how do you create an environment like this for your team?

A team of people with diverse skills and perspectives is always more productive and creative than each member alone can be, not to mention the lone leader trying to figure things out in isolation. One plus one equals three, or ten, or a thousand.

Consider, how many pounds can one draft horse pull?

Answer: about one thousand pounds.

How many pounds can two draft horses pull?

Answer: about four thousand pounds. In this case, 1+1=4.

That’s simple math that is not always so simple.

Why this result?

Answer: The two horses, pulling together, compensate for the other’s weaknesses. They complement each other, they fill in performance gaps. Each horse, on its own is powerful. Together, their strength is remarkable!

A Sad Reality for Many Teams

We all pay lots of lip service to creating a diverse team, but in practice far too many leaders tend to be territorial and defensive. Everyone hails the new merger for its “synergy,” but most mergers fail because synergy isn’t allowed to happen.

A large European construction firm wanted a presence in North America and acquired a cement company in the American South. Everyone looked forward to the synergies: the numbers looked wonderful, and the capabilities of the two firms fit well together. But year after year, performance fell further until the CEO turned desperately to a study group from the Sloan School at MIT to get to the root of the problem.

Their conclusion: “The anticipated economic synergies have not materialized because little attention has been paid to achieving psychological synergies.” They reported “open hostility” among the people in the acquired company; they “hated” their European owners and would not share data with them nor even allow them on the premises without permission from their own CEO. “The goal of a merger is to have the component parts add up to more than they are worth individually,” the study group observed. “Obviously, this hasn’t happened.”

Probing further, the study group found that the parent company didn’t value the very different culture, ideas, and input of the people at the acquired company. Where they had hoped their potential would be unleashed, they felt chained down instead.

When titles are conferred on people, they tend to become over-controlling without realizing it. Their identity gets tied up in the phrase “I’m in charge here.” They value sameness, so they squelch ideas from the members of their team. They want order, so they enforce uniformity of opinion. They want their way, so they discount the divergent views of the team—and synergy is suppressed.

The great irony here is that synergy is the reason for having a team in the first place. No individual is the same as any other—each has gifts, talents, passion, and skills no one else can duplicate. Effective leaders leverage those differences.

Airbus Industrie: Synergy in Practice

Consider what happens when Airbus Industrie puts together a team of biologists, physiologists, artists, molecular physicists, graphic designers, psychologists (and an aeronautical engineer or two) in a room and asks them to come up with the airplane of the future. What they envision will completely revolutionize air travel.

Imagine an airplane that mimics a human skeleton—it can twist, turn, spring, and vault like an athlete. Instead of wearing out, the plane’s muscular shell actually gets stronger with stress, just like human muscles do. Its parts look like human bones; the mechanism of a baggage compartment is modeled on your shoulder joints. When you sit down, your seat molds itself around your body to give you a customized ride. Instead of a dim, dense atmosphere, the cabin is spacious and bathed in natural light: The skin of the airplane transmits light and energy and even data, carrying music and video and virtual golf games to the passengers. And the entire plane is organically grown from nanotubes, an enormous 3D printout weighing half of what our most advanced airplanes weigh.

“The airplane of the future will get its own consciousness,” the designers say. “It will be more like a living organism than just a collection of very complex technology.”

This is the power of a synergistic team, where each individual member’s skills and genius and energies are leveraged to produce a marvel that no one could produce alone. On this team, every member is a leader.

Wait, you say. How can everybody on a team be a leader?

Imagine a team where everyone is a leader, where every member is proactive and visionary with clearly shared priorities. Imagine a team where everyone is looking out for the interests of each other, where they are intensely empathic and open to different views. That is the team you need now.

A Few Questions to Consider

  • Do you tend to welcome different points of view, or discourage them?
  • Are you territorial, defensive, or closed to the ideas of others?
  • Are you suffering from the “not invented here” syndrome?
  • Or is your team a model of synergy?
  • Do team members feel unleashed or chained back?