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

People who don’t engage in conflict don’t commit.


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]


About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World