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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

Leadership and Conflict

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #112
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Do you know someone who always seems calm, relaxed, and good-humored? The person others go to for their advice and to resolve conflict. Many of these wise individuals are what Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great, refers to as Level 5 leaders. A Level 5 leader exhibits a combination of intense personal humility and professional will. They demonstrate a driven, assertive attitude while understanding their strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, they put the needs of others ahead of their own.

You don't have to be a Level 5 leader or even a mellowed elder (like myself) to lead through chaos, disorder, and intense emotional responses. The skills to lead and resolve conflict can be learned. In this issue of Leadership Thoughts, I will share some things I've learned about how best to deal with conflict. Some of the lessons learned are through study and from mentors, but much is through good and bad experiences.

Lesson #1: Avoid Conflict

A wise person has the skill and wisdom to resolve a conflict before it starts. The art of this skill involves knowing what not to say or do that will escalate the conflict. Sun Tzu's treatise The Art of War recommends a gentle approach to conflict instead of a rigid win-at-all-cost approach. The strategy revolves around knowing what not to do and when not to do it as it is in knowing what to do and when.

If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle. - Sun Tzu

My translation of the quote is emotionally intelligent leaders have self-awareness. They understand their motivations and can regulate their emotions. They reframe from outbursts and unwise actions by not letting negative emotions control their behavior. It all starts with knowing yourself and seeking to understand others.

Lesson #2: Think Win-Win

Stephan Covey's famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, lists "Think Win-Win: as habit number four. Like many of you, during my adolescence, I thrived on competition and focused on winning. If I win, you lose; if you win, I lose was my mantra. Although this attitude has a place, it should not be the mindset of leaders. When you apply the same philosophy to leadership, it becomes a zero-sum game. When leaders are determined to win at the sake of others losing, they fail to recognize the harm caused by their aggression.

The first step in acquiring this skill is to have a mindset that seeks the best for all involved in each interaction. Win-win means that everyone should come away from a decision feeling like their needs are met. It takes courage, empathy, and thoughtfulness to produce a satisfactory result that works for everyone. An atmosphere of cooperation, not competition, is essential for win-win leadership. Creating an environment of mutual respect and open dialogue is key to avoiding destructive behavior that could harm relationships.

Lesson #3: Conflicts are Inevitable.

Everyone in a position of leadership will, at some point, experience clashes and conflicts. It takes confidence and courage to make decisions that may not be popular. Even though it's human nature to retaliate when challenged, successful leaders will find a way to resolve disputes, limit the impact, and remain composed. Instead of responding aggressively or defensively during the conflict, adjust your responses as things unfold. Sun Tzu cautions against succumbing to five particular traits: anger, greed, pride, recklessness, and over-protection.

In William Ury's book, Getting to Yes, he recommends "going to the balcony" when tempted with an emotional instead of a wise response. Mentally picture yourself on a balcony looking down on what is happening. Separate yourself from the emotions and view the exchange and situation as an observer. My son, Todd, would say you can't see the whole picture when you are inside the picture; you have to step outside to get a better perspective.

Conflict is all around us, in our organizations, communities, country, and across the globe. Leaders with emotional intelligence and the ability to prevent and resolve conflict are desperately needed. Be the one who has earned respect and trust, remaining steady and good-humored as you guide others through disputes.


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