Leadership can be about doing the things that most other people don’t like doing. Confronting interpersonal conflict is one of those things. Whether it is called conflict resolution or conflict management you must address the tension head-on. When it comes to conflict, leadership is not easy. Here is another place I want to say, “Who you are is how you lead.”
Conflict and Disagreements
Abraham Lincoln once remarked that his father had taught him the value of hard work but had never succeeded in teaching him to enjoy it. I confess that I find myself with the same feeling when it comes to conflict and disagreements. To be honest, I like it best when people relate together in warm and harmonious ways. The psalmist says it best, “How good and pleasant it is when people live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Yet, after 47 years of ministry, I have come to the conclusion that such a harmonious state is not always possible or, at times, even desirable.
Barriers to Health
You and I have seen what happens when “being nice” becomes the mode of operation and “peace at any price” is sought out in the midst of conflict. Such actions do not lead to relational health. In fact, they inhibit any honest interaction in which real differences are shared and true fellowship is experienced.
That is why I say I feel the way Lincoln felt about hard work. When it comes to conflict, I cannot say I “enjoy” it, but I do see its value. With that in mind, there are several insights that are necessary for courageous and effective leadership.
Conflict is Inevitable
First, conflict is inevitable. It is part of who we are as human beings, and it happens in every ongoing relationship. Because it is a part of who we are, it is an opportunity for growth and understanding, as well as change and improvement. It is not something to be resolved as much as something to be transformed.
Think of it this way, we are created differently. You and I have different strengths, talents, and abilities. If we love and respect one another, there will be times we find ourselves in disagreement with one another.
Diversity and Unity
In fact, if we take seriously the doctrine of the Trinity, there is individuality and diversity within the nature of God. There is a dynamic interaction between the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is not surprising that a world created in the image of this kind of deity would be full of diversity.
You and I do not think, feel, or act in the same way. This means there will be conflict between us when our differences interact. It also means there will be a richness and creativity that will emerge when we acknowledge our differences and love one another in the midst of our differences. Conflict is the price we pay for our individuality. It is inevitable.
Conflict Shapes Who We Are
Second, conflict shapes who we are. It is through conflict that we become more who God created us to be. Theologian Paul Tillich defined reality as “that which comes against, that which resists us.” It is through conflict that our individual natures are shaped. Conflict is not something to be resolved as much as something to be transformed.
Again, think of it this way. It is through encountering resistance that a child begins to distinguish the limits of her/his being. At first the world is an extension of themselves. But when the child pushes on the side of the crib and it does not move, or demands something from his/her parents, and they do not comply, the child experiences conflict. Without it, the true shape of the child’s personality would never be known.
Disagreements Can Bring Clarity
You and I may not really know each other until we disagree. When I come up against something in you that is not the same as what is in me, then the shape of who you are begins to stand out clearly and distinctly against who I am.
Our distinctiveness is neither good nor bad. It is just who we are. We each can love and respect each other for who we are and to move forward from there. Only then is there a chance for us to have real fellowship together. Conflict is a gift we receive that helps us love and respect one another as God has created us to be.
An Opportunity for Courageous Leadership
Third, conflict provides the opportunity to lead courageously. Conflict is a daily occurrence. Whether at home, at work, or within relationships, each occurrence is an opportunity to lead with courage and compassion.
Remember, leadership is taking the responsibility for finding the potential in people and the courage of developing that potential. When conflicts arise, you can embrace the situation and the people involved. You work not only to address the problem, but you learn about your own leadership as you lead others through the adverse circumstances. Conflict is not something to be resolved as much as something to be transformed.
Tension Leads to Growth
As a leader, you see opportunities that others do not see. You assist others in growing in healthy relationships, because you know that the most authentic relationships do not truly begin until they experience some form of tension with each other.
Think of it this way. In I John 1:5-7, John writes, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all…if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another…”
This means that God is willing to be Godself in all openness. God, by nature, is transparent. God does not hide his uniqueness in darkness or in the shadows. Walking “in the light…” means practicing the same kind of authenticity and transparency. This is the only way you can have true fellowship with those entrusted to your care. You openly acknowledge the realities of the differences of the people around you and interact with them with honesty and clarity.
Courage to Lead
This is where your courage as a leader takes place because this way of leading and relating brings with it the possibility of conflict and disagreement. When two individuals who are not the same come down on opposite sides of things, you must have courage to be authentic and transparent.
As I stated earlier, this is the price you pay for the kind of fellowship that grows out of honest interaction. It is inevitable. On the other hand, it is a gift that helps you lead with love and respect. It is not easy. Don’t try to avoid or minimize the conflict. See it as an opportunity to become the person and leader you were created to be.
Your Next Step
This week, take a moment to reflect upon the conflict you are facing. As you focus upon the people involved, are you able to set aside your personal feelings? Are you able to listen to what is being said and to the feelings being expressed? As you listen, where can you work for positive and constructive change?
Decide how you can best lead in the midst of the situation. Share your decision with a trusted friend. Offer your decisions and conversations to God and move forward with courage. You are not alone. Walk in the light and be who God created you to be.
No matter how difficult, when you dare to lead with authenticity, working to transform conflict into healthy relationships, you will discover the fellowship God has intended for all God’s creation.
Who you are is how you lead.