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  • Writer's pictureMike Ayers

Leaders Learn from Conflict

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Conflict and ongoing relational stress in the workplace can take its toll in a unique way. Resolving the problem with the other person is of course always best. This might involve a risky and difficult conversation with them, or possibly involving a supervisor. The mature response calls for us to initiate such a dialogue and seek to bring resolution to challenge in some agreeable fashion. Another strategy is to be miserable and just tolerate the emotional drain. Normally, this cannot be endured long. Still a third option is to exit the situation altogether by leaving the workgroup or the entire organization. While sometimes required, it’s regrettable that a person might leave an otherwise good job because of conflict with another individual. Whatever your response, it should be well-considered, strategic and executed with emotions in restraint.

The purpose of this writing is to articulate a case for yet another option. This one requires graduate-level maturity and calls for introspection as compared to the normal extrospection that occurs. My point is—usually we believe that conflict or relational tension is the fault of others. May I challenge that assumption? Is it possible that you are the root problem of this situation? Could believing that the problem is “out there” possibly be the problem? And beyond any response you may have, could this conflict possibly be present to teach you something about yourself or to change you somehow?

The first job of leadership is to take responsibility.

While we don’t like to hear it, in truth we often experience problems in our lives and leadership because of our own actions, insecurities, and ill-motivated decisions. Since this is so, it is important for leaders to learn to ponder the hardships they face by first looking internally at what might be driving conflict with others—including their own lack of character and/or competence. Questions to consider include: Is this conflict caused by a poor decision, inadequate communication, or other lack of competence on my part? Am I acting as a servant-leader on behalf of others, or is this all about my ambitions, getting my way, and proving myself? Is my ego driving this issue? Did this conflict result from my need for others’ approval or fear of people? Did I enable this conflict to occur by abiding something or someone—the wrong person empowered, a delay on my part to confront the issue, a dysfunctional culture that developed in my workgroup, etc.? Is the way we are structured for decisions systemically embedding conflict into our organization? The most honest and overriding question a leader can ask is, “What is the true and deepest source of this conflict and is it me?”

Even if a leader does not directly cause a problem, it was his or her job to head it off in the first place, to fix it and to set structures in place to keep it from occurring again. We all love to blame others. But good leaders do not abdicate responsibility. Only when we own up to the portion we bring to challenges and conflict are we able to develop as the influencers we need to be, as well as change our organizations for the better. Simply put, leaders learn from conflict.

Unfortunately, what often happens instead is that leaders rob the conflict of its ability to transform them because they either ignore every conflict situation that comes up, fail to take responsibility for them, and never consider the possibility that it was brought their way for their good. If we don’t see conflict in this way, we will never grow from it. In truth, regardless of where fault lies in any given conflict, it can be used to reveal something to us about ourselves, to make us more secure and effective as leaders, and to transform our character through the experience.

We take ourselves with us.

When we ignore conflict or leave situations where it occurs instead of facing up to it, we take ourselves with us. As Yogi Berra rightly said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” In other words when you leave, though you have a new context, you still bring yourself into it (your own insecurities, repeated patterns of poor decisions, lack of courage, etc.), and if you are the true cause of conflict (which self-aware leaders must always consider), that conflict will show up again. Leaders are often willing to change jobs, roles, work teams and even geographic locations, but not themselves. Amazingly, life has a way of bringing similar people and situations back to us in the attempt to teach us the lessons we are choosing to ignore. More than any other benefit to life is its ability to develop within us the character that will serve us and others better in years ahead. Character development is a prerequisite course in a life authentically lived. If we choose to withdraw ourselves from the class, we will automatically get re-enrolled in a new one. The people may be different; the context may be different; but life will bring the same kind of conflict our way—or better said, it will again attempt to reveal the conflict that was within us the whole time. As Walt Kelly wrote years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”*

Leadership and Learning

Leaders who do not learn the lessons found in conflict end up repeating the same mistakes over and over, only with different people. We often want others to grow and change, but we remain unwilling. The story is told of a man who, in the course of twenty years, held numerous jobs. He left each job due to similar problems. He claimed to have twenty years of experience, but in reality, he had one experience repeated twenty times. Why? Because while he had experiences to teach and grow him, he missed the meaning behind each of them.

On the other hand, when leaders recognize their missteps and confess them to themselves, they place themselves in a context for deep change. The process of true inner growth begins. Only through the pain of change, often ignited by conflict, does the leader become more self-aware for the future; grow deeper in character and integrity, and learn to walk in humility that protects him or her from implosion. As for our leadership, we gain valuable insights into what to do, how to do it, as well as what not to do. Simply put, we become more competent leaders.

All this potential is held in hardships and conflict— and in reality, it is often only held there. Why? Because pain has a way of teaching us much more than classroom knowledge ever will. We don’t learn best when we see the light. We learn best when we feel the heat.

My great encouragement is this: while the issue may well be the other person with whom you are struggling, don’t neglect to learn something and grow in some way from this situation. That’s being a graduate-level leader... and organizations need more of them.

* Walt Kelly, Pogo: We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us. 2nd edition. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972)


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