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Leadership and Conflict

Aug 17, 2007
There are many qualities that people look for in a leader: the ability to see what's going on, a high level of self-awareness, the skill to motivate and inspire others, good communication and listening skills, the ability to see the big picture and bring others along.

One thing that isn't often in the 'top 10' skills, interestingly enough, is the ability to manage conflict, to create conflict and to resolve it. Like most people, leaders are also guilty of avoiding conflict like the proverbial plague or sweeping it under the carpet till there's a big huge lump, or simply hoping it will go away.

Now, there are some famous leaders who seem to take pride in their aggressive approach to conflict. Alan Sugar is a good case in point, who, in his introduction to The Apprentice, says he's the most belligerent person they'll ever meet. Goody.

And indeed, some people really do thrive on conflict, almost to the point that you might think they couldn't actually exist if there wasn't some conflict in their lives on an on-going basis.

We're not talking about those guys. No, the leaders we're talking about are more like you and me: the ones who would like everyone to get on with each other, never get pissed off, never raise their voices or stomp around in a huff, never get offended or have their noses out of joint.

Welcome to never-never land.

We're going to go out on a limb here and say that we believe that most of the major problems or crises in any organisation (aside from political shenanigans, back-stabbing and empire building) can be traced back to conflicts that weren't handled at the very beginning stages. Conflicts where there are no early interventions tend to escalate at an alarming rate.

Let's say two people on your team don't get on very well and you become aware of an atmosphere, a tension that you can't quite put your finger on. As a leader you might ask each of them, "Everything all right?" And you might very likely get, "Yes, everything's fine." So you walk away, not quite convinced, but there are too many things to do, and why can't they just be grown up enough to sort it out between themselves.

Next thing before you know it, they no longer speak to each other; they will probably start looking for proof of how incompetent the other person is; they might start spreading rumours or little snippets of gossip about the other person. Others on your staff will be asked to take sides. Get the picture?

As a leader, it isn't good enough to ask, "Is everything all right?" Far more effective, if you're going to manage conflict as a leader is to say, "I can tell things aren't all right, so I need to get to the bottom of this pretty quickly so we can get on with the business of the business." Or words to that effect.

Whether you're a leader running a large multi-national or a small company, or leading a neighbourhood association or church group, it's all right to feel like jelly inside when having to handle conflict. We're not talking about you feel, but how you behave.

To make a substantial difference wherever you are a leader, manage conflict early and your life, and your organisation's life will thrive.
About the Author
Jo Ellen and Robin run Impact Factory who provide Leadership Training, Presentation Skills, Communications Training, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching for Individuals.
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