The 'unity of opposites'

Natürlich Gewachsenes Yin-Yang CC Wikimedia

Why progress depends on a partnership of polarities

“I can never resonate with more than half of my own home community. People necessarily have a slightly different perspective on issues and those perspectives are not illegitimate… what I’ve been searching for is not to deny that but to find the radical centre of all these tensions.”

Noel Pearson, Garma Festival, 2013

LAST WEEK at the Garma festival in far North East Arnhem Land, Noel Pearson spoke about the unity of opposites.  It was a moving piece of oratory and I encourage you to watch it.

There are few more polarising figures in Indigenous Australia than Pearson, yet in this speech he skillfully provides a hat tip to his detractors while reminding us that we need not act like there are no differences between us. Rather, our differences are essential. They are “the yin and yang that makes up communities,” and they cannot be avoided or denied.

I would go further and say that our differences are actually essential to progress, to growth.  When, as Pearson put forward, the opposites play out—opposites of “rights and responsibilities, the cultural and the symbolic, north and south, urban and remote”—we tend to look for where we resonate and hold to the comfort of our side.

But systems and people need the ‘other’ to provoke them, to challenge them and show them where they are lacking. For example, I don’t learn from people who agree with me – I just feel affirmed and comfortable. But there are things I and my organisation need to do differently. Those that see the world differently will help me understand that.

The ‘other’ can also, through the heat of difference, show us our gifts—gifts such as power, insight, political skills and resilience. And these are gifts that can be transformed for everyone’s benefit. All these come out when dealing with difference and are not so important when we are cruising with people like us.

These 49:51% splits are most important when we are on the brink of real growth. If they weren’t, the change would have happened already.  (And it can be hard to see these polarities as mutually beneficial in an election cycle, when we are encouraged to see opposites in conflict rather than as partners in growth.)

Thousands of kilometres away, in Sydney last week, I spoke at The Australian New Economy Summit. Not about Indigenous rights and responsibilities but about how we need to harness our diversity to ensure the sustainability of our organisations generally  in the still-new century.

As many speakers held forth about the challenges and opportunities in the shift from industrial to knowledge economies I must say I felt my age. So many young people with so much energy about this “new world” using words I didn’t understand. I had to remind myself that I am only 43.

I couldn’t help again to see how important it was to work with the opposites. The old economy, which apparently I inhabit, isn’t actually going anywhere. But things are changing. And we need to respond to these changes not only for economic benefit but also for social equity—for the long-term wellbeing of our community as a whole.

But I believe success here will not come from jumping into new models that seemingly hold so much promise. Rather I think competitive advantage will come from spanning the opposites: the old and the new, the first world and the third world, black and white, women and men.

Funnily enough I thought the most interesting speakers at the New Economy Summit came from quite ‘old economy’ industries such as paper making and banking. They had found ways to straddle both old and new worlds by opening themselves up to voices they didn’t really want to hear but had created enough of a ‘gap’ in business-as-usual for them to emerge and not get silenced or killed off. They seemed to have both become much more resilient businesses as a result.

One of the things we teach about leadership at Social Leadership Australia is that working with diversity, listening to the ‘marginal’ voices, requires us to firstly take full responsibility for the power we have in the systems we operate in. So if I could quote Pearson to finish, it is “the greatest right” to take responsibility— not only for ourselves but also for ‘the other’, in our families, in our communities, in our organisations and in our own hearts—if we are interested in growth.