November 15–16, 2006

Today’s leaders face a daunting challenge in their quest to create positive change: how to lead in a world of difference. Traditional models of leadership, often based in “us versus them” thinking, offer little guidance in a world in which the “us” in question is ever more diverse. How can leaders manage the tensions and talents of the many subgroups that make up most organizations and communities today—and mobilize these groups to work together toward common goals?



The Center for Public Leadership’s sixth annual research conference, “Intergroup Leadership,” brought together a multidisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners for an innovative and intensive full-day dialogue to begin shaping answer to the challenges of intergroup leadership. Designed specifically to launch new lines of inquiry and promote new scholarship, the gathering was focused around small-group working sessions, organized in round tables.

The ambitious variety of the day’s work is reflected in the short presentation given by participants to launch each working session. In some instances, joint authors of presentations led discussions at different tables about their shared topic.

Table 1

  • Session 1: “Leading Coordination Across Intraorganizational Boundaries: Relevant Challenges and Recommendations for Success,” Heather M. Caruso, Harvard University; Todd Rogers, Harvard University; Max Bazerman, Harvard University.
  • Session 2: Community Leadership that Bridges the “Black/Brown” Divide,”  Marco Davis, National Council of La Raza.
  • Session 3: “When Should Leaders Emphasize More Assimilative or More Pluralistic Orientations Toward Social Integration to Produce More Positive Intergroup Relations?”  Jack Dovidio, University of Connecticut.
  • Session 4: “Trust and Distrust in Intergroup Relations: A Leadership Perspective,” Roderick M. Kramer, Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Major themes that emerged during the day’s discussions at Table 1 included the difficulty of sustaining intergroup collaboration across contexts and over time and the difficulty of defining when and how leaders are able to positively influence their group’s feeling about another group with whom collaboration is sought.

Table 2

  • Session 1: “When Should Leaders Emphasize More Assimilative or More Pluralistic Orientations Toward Social Integration to Produce More Positive Intergroup Relations?”  Sam Gaertner, University of Delaware.
  • Session 2: “A Global Network Defining Shared Values: Ashoka’s Quest for Intergroup Leadership,” Anamaria Schindler, Ashoka.
  • Session 3: “Spiritual Leadership Across Religions,”  Bawa Jain, World Council of Religious Leaders.
  • Session 4: “Self-Categorization and Intergroup Leadership,” Michael J. Platow, The Australian National University.

The participants at Table 2 explored the dynamics of intergroup relations and leadership and raised challenging questions about the underlying values that drive discussions about intergroup relations. For example, is it really true that cooperative solutions are always better than individual solutions?  Or that intergroup conflict is necessarily a bad thing? Or that non-violence is always the best approach? The group explored how context determines the value of an approach to dealing with intergroup conflict as much as, or more than, prevailing beliefs about what is good or right. For example, while non-violence was an effective approach for Gandhi in India and Dr. Martin Luther King in the United States, it would have been of no use against Adolf Hitler in World War II. Table 2 also explored, based on Michael Platow’s work, the factors that give leaders legitimacy, or “leadership capital,” to make progress in intergroup relations.

Table 3

  • Session 1: “An Identity-Based Account of Leadership,” Jolanda Jetten, University of Exeter.
  • Session 2: “Leading Amid Pluralism,”  Tom Tyler, New York University.
  • Session 3: “Boundary-Spanning Leadership, Tactics for Bridging Social Boundaries in Organizations,” Chris Ernst and Jeffrey Yip, Center for Creative Leadership.
  • Session 4: “Intergroup Leadership Strategies and the Faith Line,” Eboo Patel, Interfaith Youth Core.

The day’s discussion at Table 3 yielded consensus that the best approach to encouraging positive intergroup relations is to demonstrate respect for each subgroup while fostering commitment to and identification with the whole, This approach is often described as “boundary nesting”—creating concentric “safe spaces” for group identity, first for each subgroup, then for larger aggregations of groups. But the table also raised many tough questions about the practical realities of achieving those ends and the effects of different contexts on choosing leadership approaches for bringing groups together. For example, how do leaders foster intergroup cooperation and respect when the values of subgroups are inherently in conflict, or when a subgroup’s values conflict with societal norms and laws?

Table 4

  • Session 1: “Reaching Across the Aisle: Bipartisan Agreement Beyond Polarization in the United States Congress,” Marcus Alexander, Harvard University, and Matthew C. Harding, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Session 2: “Merging at the Top: The Role and Challenges of Intergroup Leadership in Organizational Mergers,” Rebecca Newton, London School of Economics and Political Science.
  • Session 3: “Ministers of Intergroup Relations for Each Country: Benefits and Implementation,” Alan B. Slifka, the Alan B. Slifka Foundation.
  • Session 4: “Intergroup Leadership and the NIR School of the Heart,” Dr. Judith Richter, NIR School of the Heart.

At Table 4, the day’s conversation revolved around the difficulties of being an intergroup leader. Leading across groups may cause a leader to lose support with his or her base constituency and may lead to results that none of the groups are sufficiently happy with. What can leaders do to avoid these pitfalls? The group proposed solutions including 1) finding overarching goals for the larger aggregation of groups; 2) leading covertly, finding ways to change minds and influence opinions from the bottom up, rather than from the top down; 3) and using the passage of time strategically, rather than forcing the pace of change.

The Intergroup Leadership conference,  like  the Women and Leadership conference earlier that year, also provided the foundations for an edited volume of essays by participants. Published by Harvard Business Press and edited by Todd L. Pittinsky, Crossing the Divide: Intergroup Leadership in a World of Difference has seventeen chapters by scholars and practitioners and was released in August 2009.