Why Great Leaders Embrace Conflict


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.


The Skinny on Vision Statements


It’s not about what the vision says, it’s about what the vision means. Many people get wrapped up in the wording of the vision statement. It’s important to remember that the vision statement is simply that – a statement. It’s not the vision. The vision is the big idea, the thing that gives meaning to everything else. The statement is the written manifestation of the big idea. Don’t get me wrong, the wording is important, but it’s not the most important thing. Visions don’t have to be glamerous. They don’t have to be poetic. But they do need to be inspiring enough to create the future you want for your organization. Just don’t get hung up on the wording of the statement. Remember, visions don’t change, but their wording can and in some cases should.

One of the best vision statements ever comes from Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Wow, sign me up Scotty! The great thing about this vision is the split inifinitive, “To boldly go.” Most organizations would shudder at the thought. But the vision speaks to us. It inspires us and guides us on where we’re going, and where we’re not going (i.e. the places we’ve already been).

So many people are confused about the differences between a mission statement and a vision statement. So much so that even the writers of Star Trek called their vision statement a mission. Here’s the basic distinction between the two. A vision is so big it never gets accomplished. A mission is so specific, that it does. That’s why we have the phrase, “mission accomplished.” You never hear anyone say, “vision accomplished,” do you?

The vision, “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” could direct you to your first mission. In NASA’s case, their first mission was the mission to the moon. A vision is to a mission what a goal is to an objective. One sends you in a direction, the other is specific as to what you will accomplish along the way.

And now for some controversy. You don’t need a mission statement. But you do need a vision. Vision, values and a compelling promise are enough for most organizations. Mission statements are typically generic and uninspiring and can easily be swapped with another organization in the same category. Good visions can’t. Without vision, people perish. With a compelling vision, no one needs a mission statement to tell them what to do.

So next time you’re in a vision-casting meeting, remember two things: 1) vision comes before mission, and 2) the words are much less important than the meaning.

Mission accomplished!