Leadership Essentials: Courage Through Conflict

mountain climbers climbing mountain

People worth following are leaders and, as I have written the last two weeks, these people are worth following because they are both accountable and have a vision. The next essential component of leadership is courage. If the buck stops with the leader (accountability), and the leader is the one that helps move the organization from point A to point B (vision), courage then becomes the necessary ingredient for action. Action, however, always leads to some form of conflict because individuals, organizations, and entities often resist it. This resistance stems from the change required to move from point A to point B. Thus, the need of the leader is to courageously embrace conflict.

The leader is compelled to the “land of conflict” because conflict is the pathway to the “land of what could be.” For the individual, the “land of what could be” might be a healthier lifestyle or mindset. To achieve this vision, the individual will have to overcome the resistance towards it —a new workout routine, a changed diet, or a new way of thinking—and courageously fight through this resistance in order to achieve the vision. Organizations are no different. Casting the vision is one thing, overcoming the resistance to change is quite another.

Overcoming organizational resistance begins with addressing it head on. Leaders should not bulldoze opposing views because doing so would make them no better than a tyrant —and no one willingly follows a tyrant. Rather, addressing resistance should be done with a notepad, pen, and an open mind. Leaders should ask questions, understand what the concerns are, and even research the concerns to see how valid they are. Above all, leaders should make sure people are heard and valued. Based on what is learned, the strategy and tactics may, or may not, change. The vision itself might change, or perhaps become clearer. Armed with these new insights, the leader can begin moving the organization towards point B.

While the above paragraph sounds idealistic, I have discovered that it does not have to be. The problem is that there is internal resistance to listening to the resistance —“I don’t have time for this” is often a bogus excuse for “I don’t have the courage to spend the time necessary to do this relational work.” Or, “I am not really open to opposing views that will challenge my own view.” But, when we see it through, when we hear the resisters out, and when they feel valued, the worst case scenario is moving forward with a person that feels valued even though they disagree with the direction in which the entity is moving. This is always better than a disgruntled, unheard, and undervalued follower.

Before ending this post, there is one more point important to make. The above reality is why leaders need to surround themselves with followers who can, and will, lead themselves. This is vital on multiple levels. First, the leader is worth following because they are developing others and passing off responsibility to others. Again, dictators keep authority to themselves, whereas leaders are in the business of giving it away. This not only helps develop others, but also safeguards the organization. It is succession planning in practice.

Second, leaders need to surround themselves with followers that can lead because, as counterintuitive as it may sound, leaders need to be led themselves at times. What I mean is that leaders need help in refining the vision, and they may occasionally need to be held accountable to being courageous. After all, leaders are leaders because they are willing to do the things nobody else wants to do. Abdicating this responsibility for too long will do nothing less than destroy their credibility as a leader.

Finally, the last reason a leader must surround themselves with followers that can lead is for the purpose of organizational health. For the difference between a complainer and leader is subtle. Perhaps this oversimplifies, but the subtlety is often the courage to take action on that complaint. No leader can do this entirely on their own, which is why it is critical they surround themselves with people that can help shoulder the load.

Leaders always take action. Leaders do this because they have courage. And, to come full circle, this is one of the reasons people follow them.