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Good Leaders Are Good Mediators

If you work on organizational or employment conflict, you will be very pleased to know that the latest trend in ideas about leadership focuses on the need for excellent conflict resolution skills. This trend is good news not just for mediators, but for all those who work in organizations where the lack of conflict resolution skills was often seen as a sign of strength.

For a long while, ideas about leadership were general. Even the titles of books on leadership were general: “on leadership,” or maybe “the leader,” or maybe the plural was used and the book was about “leaders.”

Then work on leadership shifted gears. First it focused on metaphors, and books compared leadership with a “challenge,” a “new science,” or an “odyssey.” Another phase included descriptors like visionary, jazz, high velocity, and primal. We were even told to lead with “soul.” A whole series was based on “leadership lessons from . . .” and drew on the writings of leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but when lessons drew on the writings of Attila the Hun I began to see the series as brand extensions rather than interesting explorations of an idea.

Often the discussion in these books tried to answer a particular question: Which skills make the better leader ¬– interpersonal skills such as being a good listener, team builder or communicator, or more practical skills such as attention to detail, persistence, efficiency and the ability to work long hours? The first set of skills is very people-oriented, the second very task-oriented, and they seem to have been considered mutually exclusive.

Luckily, the focus has shifted from metaphors and lessons to processes, especially conflict resolution and the particular skills needed to find the creative opportunities in disagreement. Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, Conflict Competent Teams, Leadership on the Line, and Leading Through Conflict are all good examples that follow this path.

The new focus on conflict resolution turns out to be necessary for dealing with both people and tasks, so the ideas are not limited to one or the other end of the discussion. As mediators, we can use these ideas to understand the dynamic and context of organizational conflict and use what we discover to point a path toward resolution.

One of the current books, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by Heifetz and Linsky, explains how conflict is generated by change, especially when the change is not integrated so that both people and process are taken into account.

The authors discuss two levels of change, technical and adaptive. Technical change is just that: changes in systems that are usually made by senior executives without much input from others. It might include combining departments, coordinating systems for processing information, adopting new technology, streamlining distribution, etc. These changes cost people jobs when duplicate functions are eliminated, but they may also generate the “economies of scale” that are so highly touted as a benefit of a merger. The changes GM has been making over the years have been largely technical, and the organization just about failed. Technical change without adaptive change doesn’t work well.

Adaptive change is much harder, requiring changing the basic culture and thinking styles of the organization. Leadership provides necessary resources and support, and makes people feel safe enough to try new ideas when they would probably prefer to hide and hope it will all go away. This is the level of change, also called cultural change, that GM needed to make to stay out of bankruptcy. They came late to the idea.

The disputes you are mediating may be a result of the mismanagement of these levels of change. For example, I watched a set of leadership challenges on these two levels develop in a small organization that was bought by a larger organization but remained a subsidiary and a legal entity of its own.

In this situation, technical changes were made as required by the parent company, but the adaptive changes, the ones that force people to be creative and renew an organization, haven’t occurred. Leadership at the parent company seems distant and resistant to questions about the level of support they will provide for the necessary adaptive changes. Leadership at the subsidiary is struggling to find ways to make the necessary changes within the limited definitions of what they can now do independently and within the slower pace and larger bureaucracy of the parent company, which is also half a continent away and clearly does not understand California. Naturally there are disputes and frustration on both ends of the conference calls.

Part of the difficulty is that adaptive change is less specific than technical change, and therefore, harder to pin down and plan for. It also requires fundamental changes in how people think, and that is extremely uncomfortable for most of us, so we resist it. For example, combining computer systems is an easy thing to identify and check off on the to-do list. But how do you check off “relationship building” or “adjusting core values?” Defining what these terms mean in the organization you’re working with, figuring out how different people interpreted them and how those different interpretations led to the conflict, is the only way to address the conflict generated by adaptive change.

The other books mentioned above talk about techniques for addressing conflict rather than the reasons for it (Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader and Building Conflict Competent Teams, both by Runde and Flanagan), but they all stress that conflict resolution is the most important skill a leader can have. There is also a discussion of the role of leaders that is quite different from the roles like coach, spokesperson, and visionary that used to be primary. Now, roles concern the styles of leadership, and “mediator” beats “demagogue and manager” in Gerzon’s Leading Through Conflict. Gerzon also outlines the traits of mediator leaders necessary to lead an organization through conflict. If the leader in the organization you’re working with doesn’t have any of these traits or conflict resolution skills, yours may be a long and difficult mediation.

Understanding the organizational conflict dynamic will give you an advantage in leading the parties to resolution, and these authors provide that understanding.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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