8403 Colesville Rd., Suite 1100
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Conflict as an Opportunity for Leadership

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

The beginning of a new year is a time for resolutions, new goals and commitments, and a hope for changing habits or adopting new ones. The beginning of 2013 presents us with new cabinet secretaries and legislators at the national and state level so it is a good time to reflect on leadership.

There are numerous resources on leadership and conflict resolution. In the coming months we will feature tools to help leaders serve as conflict resolution models.

Conflict as an Opportunity for Leadership

Warren Bennis, a professor of business administration at University of Southern California discusses conflict as an opportunity for leadership. We need leaders who will take on conflict courageously and resolve it, whether in our organizations, our society or our daily lives, Bennis writes in the foreword to Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job, San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. The first skill of these future leaders is the capacity to exercise good judgment in their decision making in light of serious conflicts. They should possess knowledge, wisdom and values that foster collaboration and conflict resolution. A second leadership skill is the ability to enlist and motivate others to find common ground to resolve conflicts. Finally, leaders must have the skill of respect for diverse viewpoints that are represented in conflicts. Id. Many leaders fail here because they prejudge a situation. They don’t listen for underlying interests.

This new breed of forward thinking leaders which Bennis imagines will share critical characteristics, especially alignment, empowerment and transparency.

Fundamental Characteristics of Future Leaders

Alignment. Leaders that foster collaboration will be able to align their colleagues at all levels of the organization. This alignment is directly connected to a culture of empowered teams. Such leaders share a common understanding of the causes of organizational conflict and a commitment to resolve them. Conflict is viewed as an opportunity to learn and leaders see it as a chance to improve the organization as a whole.

Empowerment. All parties are empowered to identify and resolve conflict. This is based on a belief that everyone counts. Such empowered individuals are able to take the risk of acknowledging conflicts they generate or encounter and there is a widespread culture of respect which enables this approach to take place.

Transparency. In a values based learning organization, staff on all levels are empowered to find, identify and resolve conflicts before they generate an explosion. Leaders actively encourage everyone so all employees can feel safe to test ideas, even when there is risk of failure.

When these characteristics are shared by an organization’s leaders it prompts the growth of decentralized organizational structures such as cross functional teams. Meaningful interaction, healthy conflict and active dissent are encouraged. “This subtle yet profound and perceptible change taking place in our philosophy of leadership creates organizational cultures that encourage the honest expression of conflict and candid discussion of differences.” Id. Cloke and Goldsmith’s book is a guide for those who want to courageously approach workplace conflict.

What do the characteristics of a mediator have to do with leadership? Great leaders bring the skills and characteristics of a mediator to solve tough organizational challenges. This is the premise of Mark Gerzon in Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006. In the coming months we will feature the tools described in Leading Through Conflict.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

Leave a Reply