All great leaders – all of them – embrace conflict. If this statement makes you feel uneasy, then maybe you’re not cut out for leadership. But before you make that decision, allow me to explain.
In their masterful summary of the history of civilization, historians Will and Ariel Durant capture the importance of conflict in their book, Lessons from History:
“War, or competition, is the father of all things, the potent source of ideas, inventions, institutions, and states.”
Think about the most important things in life: family, ideas, resources. These are all things worth fighting for and they are all things that are scarce. You only have one family. You can only pursue so many ideas. Resources are limited. That’s why we often use war-like language when talk about “protecting families” or the “battle of ideas.” We perceive families to be “under attack” and ideas to be “in conflict.” What history and our own experience has shown us is that you can’t have progress without conflict.
Oddly enough, we are taught from an early age to believe that conflict is bad. At the same time we are taught to admire people like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom are known for their roles in major conflicts. King was in conflict with American racists. Gandhi was in conflict with British imperialists. And Jesus was in conflict with the religious leaders of his day. Jesus even went so far as to say, “I do not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“Peace,” according to the Durants, “is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.” In other words, there is no conflict when it’s perceived that there’s nothing to be gained.
We are all beneficiaries of conflict. If you’re reading this post, you probably live in the free world. This world was born out of conflict. As a result, we have lots of possibilities that can be actualized. You probably see them at work all the time. And you probably get frustrated when they don’t materialize. Why don’t they materialize? Often times it’s because leaders are avoiding conflict. They don’t want to ruffle each others’ feathers, so they maintain the status quo or worse. This is where great leaders come in.
Great leaders understand that importance of embracing conflict. They know that there is no progress without conflict. That doesn’t mean that conflict necessitates violence. Other words for conflict include differ, disagree and diverge. Divergent thinking is often seen as key characteristic of great leaders. Great leaders move people forward in ways others couldn’t imagine.
But great leaders don’t feel the need to be in conflict, nor do they go looking for a fight. The “why” of their conflict is what compels them forward via their philosophy, values and vision. Great leaders embrace conflict because the alternative is much less desirable. They understand that most people avoid conflict and that it is their responsibility as a leader to do for others what they cannot do for themselves. And that’s one of the reasons why we admire great leaders. They embrace conflict in order to move other people forward.
If you know someone who could be a great leader but is hesitant about conflict, please share this post with them. We need more great leaders who will engage in conflict. Because as history has shown us, it is the only way forward.