Leadership, Change and Conflict

Several years ago, I was approached by a client and asked if I do work around Leadership Development.  My response at the time was, “No, I don’t do that, I work in the context of conflict engagement.”  After a bit of discussion, the client, a school superintendent replied, “Do you know how much of my time is spent dealing with conflict?!”  This conversation and a few subsequent conversations had me “connect the dots” between three significant bodies of work, Leadership, Change, and Conflict.  Let me explain.

When reviewing the literature on Leadership you quickly note a distinction between Leadership and Management.  While both are essential to success, they are different.  Managers are given responsibility and authority to manage something, and they manage it.  While a somewhat simplistic definition, it works for our purposes.  Managers typically engage what they are tasked with and are less concerned with what lies outside their area of responsibility.

A key characteristic of Leadership, on the other hand, is vision; the ability to see what is possible and mobilize others to pursue it.  It usually involves engaging challenging, complex situations and navigating the change required to accomplish the objective.   Ronald Heifetz, in, Leadership Without Easy Answers, defines the function of Leadership as “mobilizing people to tackle tough problems”.  

In my experience, the most significant challenge of Leadership is to mobilize people to take on and engage change.  Why is this such a challenge?  Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, in their book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, provide insight into this question.  The fundamental emotion that change triggers in people is anxiety.  Change pushes people outside their comfort zone. Most people will work very hard to avoid this and stay within a world that is predictable and safe.  Many experience change as a threat; a threat to their safety, predictability, identity . . .

This brings us to Conflict, which has been defined as a perception of incompatible difference or threat to our resources, needs, and/or values.  Change often triggers conflict as we deal with resistance, at both the personal and organizational level, to being asked to let go of what is and step into what might be.  

In summary, it could be said that Leaders create Conflict by inviting people to engage the possibilities of Change.  Given this challenge, it is interesting that many leaders do not like conflict and work very hard to avoid it.  What is your relationship to change?  What is your ability to be with the conflict that accompanies change initiatives?  How will you build your capacity as a leader to mobilize others to effectively engage change and conflict and achieve shared objectives?