The vintage Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu once said that “The successful person has unusual skill at dealing with conflict an ensuring the best outcome of all.” The great German theorist on war Carl Von Clausewitz tells us that ‘war is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.’ He goes on to write that “…there is no logical limit to the application of that force.” The not so vintage philosopher and not so great theorist from the exotic land known as Brooklyn, New York, John Boggs offers that “no one wins a fight,” he goes on to suggest that the great leaders understand this theory and lead their countries, business organizations, schools, and households in a fashion that fighting is simply unheard of.
OK, I am that not so vintage philosopher and not so great theorist. I have had the honor of serving the nation as a Marine Officer for over 30 years. I have led Marines. I have served as a senior executive in a major Washington DC non-profit, and two for profit businesses. I have had a hand in raising five children to adulthood, and one teenager on her way to adulthood. I have the wonderful experience of growing up in the inner city, and on and on. So what is the point? Looking back on my life’s experiences I can say with certainty—no one wins a fight. The history of our civilization is rift with war. One can argue that history is all about war. A serious argument can be made that each war fought can be linked to a previous war.
Do you have children? Have you ever been a child yourself? Think back to the playground. Over those tender years you witnessed or participated in the fight with the bully. Or it was a fight over a difference of opinion, a perceived foul. Think about this before you answer. Did the outcome of the fight change your mind or the mind of the people fighting? Maybe you were involved in the fight, and you had your butt literally handed to you. What did think afterwards? “Gee, thanks for showing me how wrong I was about that; let’s go get a soda!” Or was it more like this—“I’ll get even, not sure when, not sure how, but I’ll show that no good…” My guess is your sentiment was more the latter than the former.
I can hear you thinking ‘John, that was childhood and only governments go to war.’ So, why is this important to me? Are you an executive, director of a department or in a leadership position in your company? Maybe you are in a leadership position in a school system? Regardless of industry, fights happen. Organizations, regardless of industry, I leave no industry out to include religious organizations, are subject to having their own in –house mini wars. The theorist Von Clausewitz cautions that war left to its own devices escalates to the extreme. In other words, it will not fix itself. Each side will continually exert whatever pressure is necessary to force the other to comply with their will. Organizations cannot flourish in this type of environment. Yet, many try to do just that. Many an executive or department director, school administrator, reverend and the like do their best to bring about a peaceful resolution when employees or departments within the organization are in conflict; only to be left with the cry of foul by one side or the other for a perceived taking of sides. The end results—low morale, loss of high potential employees, profits decrease and a list that can go on and none of it good.
The great scientist, Charles Darwin gave us the theory of evolution. In doing so he may have set us up for failure. He gave us a mindset that only the strong survive. Look inside your organization. Is that the mindset? Is one department in competition with the other? Are your subordinate leaders supporting one another or are they competing for your favor? Are you keeping your high potential employees or are they jumping ship?
How skillful are you at dealing with conflict? Logically we know that fighting is not the way to resolve issues. Emotions, however, trump logic and most, if not all, conflicts have their roots in an emotional response to a foul real or perceived.
So, what do I do now, you may be thinking? There are easily six areas that should be reviewed and acted upon quickly. I will address three areas briefly– you, the environment, your subordinates.
First things are always first and that is YOU! Those in leadership positions rarely look at themselves first when working to resolve conflict. The question must be asked and the answer must be forthright—“Am I modeling the way I expect my subordinates to react when confronted with situations that can lead to conflict? Trust me on this, your subordinates always see you. How you act or react gives license for their responses to situations that can lead to conflict.
Second, what kind of environment is your organization operating in? Does it allow for challenging the process, the status quo or is it rigid and only one way of doing things is the accepted way; full of negative ramifications for not following that accepted “way.”
Third, do you know your subordinates? Do they know, understand and have buy-in of the vision, and mission of the organization? Are they trained properly to carry out what is expected of them? Do they have the required logistical support that is timely and in sufficient quantity to do the job. Are they privately chastised and publicly praised? Do they feel as though they are an integral part of the team and organization; appreciated for their input, and valued for what they achieve? Are you aware of the significant life challenges or successes going on in their lives?
These are just three factors that keep you the successful leader with a firm handle on heading off conflict before it can begin. As that wise philosopher from Brooklyn will tell you—“No one wins a fight!”
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