Conflict For Its Own Sake Is Not An Option, But It Can Also Create Positive Change

There are a plethora of opinions about what leadership entails. One sub-theme that has emerged—and is of particular interest to me—is the theme of conflict.

I find conflict quite upsetting. I don’t look forward to it, yet I know it is required. My goal is to keep it to a minimum and even avoid it. But, based on what some influential thinkers on the subject of leadership have to say on the subject of conflict, I'm reevaluating. 

I attended the World Business Forum in New York this week, where the theme was "Inspiring Leaders." Speakers including Bill Clinton, Malcolm Gladwell, Jack Welch, Patrick Lencioni, Ben Zander, Robert Rubin, and Seth Godin weighed in on topics ranging from the grave international crises the world currently faces to teamwork. One recurring theme was that of conflict. 

Malcolm Gladwell was articulate and passionate (as usual) about being willing to make tough decisions and take any heat that results. "True leadership requires social risk-taking, which is hard because we’re hard-wired to seek the approval of others," Gladwell said, going on to say that being willing to be ostracized is a key leadership skill. It is unpleasant, but big success cannot happen without this quality.

Patrick Lencioni spoke about forming teams and, in the process, finding people who were willing to engage in conflict: "If people don’t weigh in, they don’t buy in," Leoncioni said. "People who don’t engage in conflict don’t commit." 

Bill Clinton shared the framework through which he views the current state of politics and the economy, lamenting the inability of our political leaders to engage with each other and debate in a healthy way that will lead to the best decisions. Instead, they focus on scoring political points and repeating them on the evening news. "What works in the real world is cooperation and being relentlessly focused on the future, but America's biggest problem today is that our politics are dominated by conflict," he said.

What all three speakers were clear about is that conflict for its own sake is not an option. To be argumentative, refuse to listen, be invested in "me" instead of "we," and particularly to refuse to commit even when you disagree, guarantees a poor outcome. I love that statement—committing even when you disagree—because it really is the linchpin to any successful outcome. Coming to unanimous agreement, though desirable, is often unlikely. Still, success depends on everyone getting behind whatever decision is made and supporting it full bore.

So I am simultaneously comforted and admonished about the idea of conflict. Comforted, because though I don’t expect conflict will ever be something I look forward to, neither will I work as hard to avoid it. Admonished, because I tend to be argumentative and opinionated, so that's an area for development.

Ruth Sherman Associates LLC offers high-stakes presentation skills coaching, consulting & media training for CEOs, celebrities, politicians, and entrepreneurs/Greenwich & Los Angeles

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[Image: Flickr user Corey Holms]

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4 Comments

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Managing conflict well is critical to our success as individuals, organizations and nations. Well-managed conflict builds trust, sharpens ideas, brings out the best in us. Poorly-managed conflict just causes damage. The real question then becomes how do we set up a system in which people bring their best, challenge each other, come from a place of passion and trust, and at the end of the day, pull together for a vision that the group can buy into, even if people didn't get everything they want. Patrick Lencioni's book Five Dysfunctions of a Team, speaks to this beautifully. If memory serves, one of the best ways to create healthy conflict is to build trust, so that people know it's OK to say what they really think. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach & CEO
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com

    Every Hero and Heroine has a Guide:
    Arthur had Merlin
    Luke had Obi-Wan
    Buffy had Giles
    You have Me

    Time to be Extraordinary!

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Managing conflict well is critical to our success as individuals, organizations and nations. Well-managed conflict builds trust, sharpens ideas, brings out the best in us. Poorly-managed conflict just causes damage. The real question then becomes how do we set up a system in which people bring their best, challenge each other, come from a place of passion and trust, and at the end of the day, pull together for a vision that the group can buy into, even if people didn't get everything they want. Patrick Lencioni's book Five Dysfunctions of a Team, speaks to this beautifully. If memory serves, one of the best ways to create healthy conflict is to build trust, so that people know it's OK to say what they really think. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach & CEOwww.DarkMatterConsulting.comEvery Hero and Heroine has a Guide:Arthur had MerlinLuke had Obi-WanBuffy had GilesYou have MeTime to be Extraordinary!

  • Cedricj

    Conflict can be very productive when it is not political or personal but is in the form of a debate about issues. That is why a "devil's advocate" is so important to group process and problem solving.

    cedricj.wordpress.com
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • Vicky Hsu

    Consultation among different highly contrasted opinions (conflicts) sparks the real creativity from human genome.