Befriending Enemies: Is It Worth It?

November 2, 2014

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln invited and accepted three Cabinet members who had previously run against him in the 1860 Republican nomination: Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lincoln’s gesture was both noble and shrewd. He helped galvanize his party, demonstrated his ability to set aside hard feelings, and put himself in position to learn from his critics.

Befriending enemies makes a lot of sense. It is the type of advice espoused by parents when their children come home from school complaining about an annoying or bullying classmate: “How might you turn the kid you don’t get along with into a friend?”

But how many of these parents have tried and actually succeeded at making friends this way? Unless you’ve got a presidential cabinet seat to offer or the even-keeled disposition of Lincoln, it’s not easy to befriend enemies.

Who in your organization is your biggest rival or the person who disagrees with you most philosophically? Now imagine being in a position to decide that person’s future with the organization. Would you keep that person on, fire him, or promote him? Be honest. It wouldn’t be easy to summon your inner Abe, would it?

Part of the challenge of befriending enemies is that we typically tune out most of what our enemies say or do. We focus only on the acts and comments that are most offensive, to further build our case against them. We don’t want our beliefs and assumptions challenged. We want them affirmed.

In a recent post about the Ladder of Inference, I wrote about how our natural thought process often bypasses an objective review of data. Instead, we select data that affirms what we believe to be true. In employing his enemies, Lincoln didn’t just set aside his assumptions and biases for the moment. He made a commitment to work closely with his enemies for years. In doing so, he would have to review data through a far more diverse and objective lens.

As a leader, you are likely more capable than most, and you’re likely confident about your talents and skills. As a result, you’re likely optimistic, too. But, like all of us, you have your share of biases and blind spots. You may not be ready and willing to examine these. And you may not have the patience, desire, and will necessary to befriend an enemy for years.

Leaders are more prepared for turmoil, however, when they learn. And you can learn from your enemies. There will be times when you may regret offering an olive branch, and you might feel like you’re not learning enough to justify the irritation and discomfort. But your assumptions and beliefs will be tested, and you will be a stronger, more confident, and wiser leader as a result.

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