A few weeks ago I found myself explaining nuclear fusion to my 12 year old son as we drove to a basketball game. I’m not exactly Bill Nye the science guy. I don’t carry around that kind of science knowledge in my head, but I had recently read a news article on fusion as a promising source of energy followed by a Wikipedia article on the topic. I knew enough on the topic that I was able to transform the final ten minutes of the car ride into an educational delight. I’m sure my son would agree.
In a nutshell, fusion is a process whereby the atoms of a very stable element (hydrogen) are brought close enough together to form a new, heavier atom and eventually a new element (helium). Fusion is the natural process that fuels our sun and it creates a tremendous amount of energy.
Fusion shouldn’t be confused with fission. They are kind of the same, but also pretty much opposites. Nuclear fission takes an unstable element (uranium) and splits its atoms into two or more smaller, lighter atoms, resulting in chain reaction that breaks the element into ever smaller elements. Fission also releases a lot of energy, as well as radiation and waste.
Why the science lesson? As I explained fusion and fission to my son, it occurred to me that the contrast between fusion and fission is a good metaphor for two very different approaches to leadership. Both approaches release energy and create change, but one is harmful and the other helpful.
Too many leaders take the “fission approach.” These leaders try to create change by harnessing the power of instability. If you spend more than three minutes surfing Facebook or watching cable news, you’ll see just how much tension and instability there is in our world today. People disagree on lots of things. Fission leaders find a disagreement and leverage it. They promote instability in order to gain a following, to further an agenda, or to energize a mass of people. In politics, the fission approach encourages citizens to vote against someone else. In church, fission leadership stirs fervor on hot button issues. Identity politics pits one group against another in a zero-sum game. In families, a fission parent plays one child off another one.
Fission leadership is destructive. The approach creates immediate change, but also produces long-lasting toxicity. In the United States, we are now suffering from the toxicity of deep polarization on many social, political, and cultural issues.
On the other hand, “fusion leadership” seeks to create change by promoting collaboration. While fusion leadership doesn’t grab the headlines, if you slow down and look for them, you’ll notice plenty of examples. For example, I have a colleague in my city who works with clergy from diverse denominations, bringing them together in a spirit of relationship and mutuality. He also creates space for conversation and understanding between people with different perspectives on issues such as sexuality and race. By bringing people together, he’s changing the nature of our city. Also, I meet with a mastermind group of leaders, each of whom wants to connect with one another and forge a fruitful future for our community. These community elders seek to create change in healthy, hopeful, and positive ways.
I’ll bet you know of some fusion leaders, too. Perhaps you are one. Fusion leaders generate light and energy by creating collective space, mutual understanding, common ground, and connection.
The fission approach is tempting for leaders. It’s always easier to rally against an enemy than it is to promote collaboration and cohesion. It’s simpler to break things than to bind things.
As with any metaphor, the fission and fusion model of leadership isn’t perfect (and if you’re a science teacher, you know my science isn’t perfect either). While imperfect, the metaphor does offer a helpful way of contrasting two very different approaches. Hopefully this science lesson will get you thinking about your own approach to leadership and encourage you to be one who binds and not one who breaks.