Leading in times of conflict


Good and wise leaders must possess many skills. None are more important than the ability to lead a group or community through tension and conflict. Conflict currently seems always present or threatening in our social relations — individual, group, community, and politics. Rapid change always spawns tensions which, in the absence of good leaders, often lead to conflict.

Social conflicts are diverse in origin, shape, duration, and impact. Hence, a good leader has to be nimble and skillful in responding to that diversity. At least three abilities are essential for good and wise leaders.

The first is the ability to resolve conflicts. Tensions and conflicts generally fall at the feet of a leader — one hopes not on the leader’s head. Nevertheless, some poor or foolish leaders foment conflict or even violence in the attempt to achieve their goals. Good and respected leaders are able to reduce tension, draw opposing sides into discussion and move toward resolving conflict. Norman Moore, longtime Wabash Dean of Students, strolled around campus in the evenings and occasionally came upon ‘warring’ fraternity groups. He did not holler at them to stop or manhandle offenders. He moved in the middle and asked quietly, “Who is your leader?” He had great skill and had earned respect. Good leaders reduce tensions when they are counterproductive, thus resolving conflicts.

The second is ability to manage conflict. In some cases, a good leader knows how to raise the temperature of tension in order to inspire adaptive change. A wise person said that the structure and activities of every social organization are perfectly designed to get the results it has been getting. When those results prove detrimental, change is necessary, often in the face of resistance. Ronald Heifetz writes that in those instances a good leader needs to know when to raise the temperature to a level that discussion, understanding, and new adaptive responses are possible. Issues and questions need to be raised and addressed. The leader needs to know when and how to raise and reduce tension in order to facilitate adaptive change and to avoid disruptive conflict, thus managing conflict.

The third and most advanced skill is ability to manage partnerships. The first two skills enable a leader to be effective in reacting to challenges. Managing partnerships is more positive and advanced because it is proactive rather than reactive. Creating stable partnerships between diverse groups is an effective strategy for avoiding conflict, and resolving them effectively in a timely fashion when tensions arise. We must improve the quality of our disagreements. Unfortunately, the current tendency is to create partnerships with those like us, which creates our current silos, walls, isolation, and more conflict. Effective partnerships leading to stable, constructive and lifegiving groups and communities must be diverse. It is much more demanding to create and maintain partnerships between diverse groups in a church, NGO, government and community. That’s what the best leaders do, thereby managing partnerships.

Such lessons about leadership deserve implementation in all our individual social activities. Although we might not think of ourselves as leaders, we all have influence in our schools, civic organizations, churches and community. If all of us were good, wise leaders in whatever activities engage us, we might preserve what is good in Montgomery County and be able to adapt effectively and peacefully to the rapid changes that are already upon us.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.


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