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Conflict Between Leaders

There is an African proverb: “When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.” When pursuing an organization’s purpose, conflict will naturally occur. If managed well it can be productive. Conflict can also occur around ego issues, thinly masked in the guise of purpose. This is destructive conflict. When conflict occurs between two strong leaders who each have a large investment in the outcome of an issue—civic leaders, union presidents, heads of government—many people are at risk of getting trampled.

Turf war can take a great toll on a leader. While some appear to thrive on it, turf war absorbs creative energies and often leaves reputations and organizations wounded. The best chance of avoiding this destructive conflict, or ending it early, resides with the leaders’ closest followers.

Warring leaders will apply emotional pressure for followers to support their positions. Loyalty may seem to demand that followers give in to the pressure, but the common purpose suffers if we do. Our higher responsibility is to help our leader find a course that serves the organization well. In doing so, our leader benefits, too. We can ask questions to put the issue into perspective:

What are the interests of each leader in this situation? What are the interests of the stakeholders?

Is continued conflict the best way of serving these interests or are there alternatives?

What are the risks in escalating the conflict?

What is the common ground between the leaders that can be built on?

Is there anything our side is doing to exacerbate the conflict?

What is the key thing each leader needs from the other to let go of the matter?

There are times, however, when asking these questions just of our own leader is insufficient. The acts of the rival leader (public accusations, false statements, deceitful maneuvers) may continue to throw our leader into extreme positions. It is a mistake in this situation to assume that the entire camp of the rival leader is supporting these inflammatory actions. In fact, we might assume that at least some of the rival’s followers are trying to bring their leader back into balance.

Therefore, the power to de-escalate the conflict may well lie with us. It takes courage to suggest talking with “the enemy” when tempers are flaring. But the best approach may be to open a dialogue with the rival leader’s followers about de-escalating the conflict. Working together, courageous followers from opposing camps may defuse their leaders’ destructive conflict and avoid the damage caused by territorial feuds. In this way, each organization’s purpose and leaders are well served.