Are You Tough Enough?

Recently, I sat across the table from someone who is taking on a really tough leadership challenge.  He’s confronting entrenched conflict in the organization he cares so much about.  I listened to him as his passion about the importance of doing this difficult thing welled out of him.  I’ve watched him for quite some time as he has struggled with the problem.  He knows this problem has affected those he serves and the objectives before them.  It’s taken a long time for him to come to the conclusion that not only must something be done, but he is the man for the job.  He’s pretty high up the food chain, as it is said, so why would this be so hard?  Well, he’s a human being.  This is hard work involving the self and a network of other selves.  Likely all are equally committed to their own interests.

Several years ago it occurred to me that our traditional model of the hero was rapidly changing.  Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey still applies.  Though, the fire the hero brings back to his people is more often a uniting rather than a vanquishing fire.  The sphere of unification becomes ever larger.

I’ve been taking in-depth training from Ralph Kilmann.  He is the co-creator of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory.  Though I believe strongly in collaboration, I learned many years ago the lesson that the TKI teaches.  All five modes, Competition, Collaboration, Compromise, Accommodation, and Avoidance, have their appropriate place in effective conflict engagement.  Because I have led some very political, high profile projects in difficult work places, I have also had a chance to experience the tough side of collaboration.

According to Kilmann the following things must be present for true collaboration to be possible:

  • Stress is stimulating.

  • Problem is complex.

  • Problem is important.

  • There is time.

  • Interactions are effective.

  • High levels of trust and an adaptive culture are present.

  • The reward system actively fosters cooperation and teamwork.

  • People want their relationship to improve—and last.

The popular business press shouts every day that collaboration is vital to contemporary business enterprises.  This is especially true in knowledge creation and management enterprises.  The leader’s job is redefined as vision and context setter and system tuner.  Using all the skills necessary to set a collaborative context is the daily bread of a Pervasive Leader.  Kilmann also points out that:

Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding.  Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to create a resolution that fully satisfies everyone’s concerns.  It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of (at least) two individuals.  Collaborating might take the form of exploring a disagreement or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

Isn’t it interesting how much collaboration is about engaging in what we think of as conflict?  The ability to engage effectively with conflict is one of the most important skills a leader can have.  You can’t be a leader without it.  Effective conflict engagement requires both judgment and vision.  Judgment about when and how to approach the problem; vision of a more alive and engaged relational context for everyone involved.  And, yes, it requires courage.  We’ll be talking more about courage in future posts.

Two books worth reading as you begin a journey to build your leadership skills around effective conflict engagement are The Tao of Negotiation by Joel Edelman and Mary Beth Crain and Divide or Conquer:  How Great Teams Turn Conflict Into Strength.  The first provides insights into the nature of the footwork you may need to do in order to approach a conflict well prepared.  We often feel dislike—even disrespect–for the people we are in active, hostile conflict with.  To engage effectively, we need to develop understanding and some level of compassion for them. The second book describes relationship maintenance skills that keep conflict from festering and blowing up a storm.

Frankly, everyone is responsible for building effective conflict engagement skills.  You can definitely hire a mediator or facilitator to help you get through a difficult conversation.  But, the position of greater strength is to build those skills and routinely and effectively use them yourself.  Tuning the system so that collaboration can happen requires it.

One mediator who mentored me years ago said that 60% of all human interaction was about conflict engagement.  On projects, the ratio may be higher.  Having someone else engage in your conflicts for you is like having someone else live your life for you.  It’s necessary sometimes when you don’t have the skills or the time.  Many of us hire gardeners, housekeepers, personal assistants, and so on.  But if you see a weed, do you call the gardener and tell him to please pull that weed next week?  No, you kneel down and deal with it yourself so that it doesn’t sap the vitality of the flowers and spoil the landscape.

You may also have noticed in the quotes from Kilmann above that collaboration has the objective of nurturing strong relationships.  Your interests, what you care about that really motivates your words and actions, are far more interesting to me when we are in conflict than your position.  Your position is comparatively boring and is really more the substance of the fight.  Clarifying each other’s interests is an enterprise laden with surprise—and requires vulnerability.

Over the years, I have come to respect the man sitting across the table that day.  He is a flawed human being as am I.  He struggles manfully with himself, and that day he talked about vulnerability.  I don’t know if encountering his own vulnerability is new for him.  But, he has learned to bring it into the room when he tackles entrenched conflict.  Whether he knows it or not, this is one of his best weapons in this fight.  It opens him up so he can hear more and keeps him in his place in the conversation.

If we are invulnerable, we cannot be affected by another person.  In order to effect change, we must be able to be effected by others’ interests.  We must consider the satisfaction of those interests as we consider the satisfaction of our own.  And, there is exhilaration in getting to the other side of being invulnerable.

As I watched him “gird his loins” for the next conversation, I was impressed by the personal toughness he was displaying in the face of this problem.  He goes into uncertain territory.  But, he has trained well and packed light so he can be agile.

So, are you tough enough to be the kind of leader who can engage in conflict effectively, spot the systemic weaknesses, and help tune the system so that true collaboration can emerge?  Have you trained well so that you have the skills?  Have you thrown away unnecessary baggage and armor so you are vulnerable enough to listen—and hear?  These are key attributes if you’re going to be agile enough to lead well.

And, Pervasive Leadership cannot emerge without people who have these skills.  Lead your life.  Don’t let others lead it for you.

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