I’ve been developing a leadership and development model, and plan to share it for discussion and feedback over the next couple posts. I’ll start today by sharing my thoughts on alignment.

One model I have for alignment is a laser. Normal light is “incoherent” in that the photons are not aligned in phase or direction. Lasers are “coherent” light, which means that the photons are aligned in phase in space and time and direction. With that alignment, the same amount of power becomes much more effective. A 100 watt incandescent light bulb would be hot to the touch, whereas a 100 watt laser will cut through many materials. Same power and energy, tremendous difference in impact.

Similarly, I’ve played sports for most of my life, and have repeatedly seen how alignment matters more than effort or strength:

  • As a tennis player in high school, I could hit the ball as hard as anybody on the team despite being a skinny nerd, because my technique enabled me to put all of my 120 pounds behind my shots.
  • As a volleyball player in college and grad school, I hit the ball the hardest when it felt effortless to me, which seems counter-intuitive. Normally, you would expect to feel more impact the harder you hit, but that only happened if I was off in my technique; when I was perfectly aligned, all of the force generated by my approach was unleashed through the ball.
  • As a skier and snowboarder, my best days are not when I am exerting a lot of effort, but when I instead am just carving through my turns. Everything just flows when my technique allows me to line everything up so the whole body is in sync, gliding down the hill.

On the flip side, getting out of alignment shows us how important alignment is to optimal function. When we injure one body part, we start trying to compensate for it, which gets us out of the natural alignment of our body, and increases the chance of injuring or straining another body part. Physical therapy is often needed after injuries to rebuild our strength and re-train our bodies to move in alignment again.

Alignment is valuable not just physically, but mentally. Reaching the heights of a sport requires entering the state of flow, as described in Steven Kotler’s book The Rise of Superman. Flow is hard to describe, but I think of it as getting completely immersed in an activity, and letting go of anything else in our brain; in the context of this post, I would describe it as aligning our mind to the activity at hand, such that we don’t have various voices and thoughts distracting us.

And unsurprisingly, I think that alignment is critical for organizations. Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage describes it as the “single greatest advantage” for a a company to be “whole, consistent, and complete, that is, when its management, operations, strategy, and culture fit together and make sense.” This is consistent with Google’s research on what makes teams effective: Psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact. It’s not enough to get amazing individuals together – an effective organization or team requires getting individuals aligned around a common purpose and approach with mutual accountability, as described in The Wisdom of Teams.

We see this alignment in the work of nonviolent leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. By organizing others to act collectively with a common purpose, they were able to change power structures with a speed that would have seemed unthinkable before they started. In some sense, their work shows that alignment can overcome power.

Note that alignment as I describe it here is not forcing parts to work together in a hierarchical fashion – hierarchy generally involves using power or fear, rather than alignment. I think of alignment as identifying a common purpose that unites parts to create a system, using the Donella Meadows definition of a system, where “a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose.” Alignment is the art and craft of creating or identifying a unifying purpose and a set of elements or parts, and then connecting those elements together to move towards that purpose.

I think alignment is a fundamentally different orientation towards the world and our activities than that of power, where it’s about accumulating power to force others to submit to our will. Power is a zero-sum finite game where there are winners or losers in every interaction. Alignment feels more like a non-zero-sum infinite game to me, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and we can align one way today and another way tomorrow depending on what will enable us to keep playing (and our changing purposes).

When aligning our parts leads to greater impact and power in multiple different realms from the physical to the mental to the organizational, I feel there is a deeper principle at work here. I’ll share how I think that principle can be applied across several domains in upcoming posts.

5 thoughts on “Alignment

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