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The Obama Presidency and the Future of the Conflict Management Business: The Mediative Leader and the Activist Mediator

While premature to presume, there is cause to believe, or at least to hope, based on the model of his presidential campaign that the leadership style and governance of President-Elect Barack Obama will be a boon to conflict management practice and a valuable endorsement of mediation.

How leaders lead—their style and approach to managing problems —-sets the tone and has direct influence on how the general public responds to and deals with conflict in every other context. There is a ‘trickle down’ effect. Leadership style in matters of state, be they domestic or geopolitical, directly influences the willingness or hesitancy of people to consider negotiation or mediation as a viable approach to settling an individual’s divorce or business dispute in daily life. While seemingly wholly unrelated, people watch how leaders operate and follow their lead.

People take note, directly or directly, how the President of the United States operates. If he or she is prone to acting unilaterally, quick to take risks, and decisive without a process of deliberation, the message is clear that negotiation is of lesser importance. This muscular form of leadership, still prevalent in many quarters, remains for many the traditional idea of what a leader should be. Borrowed from the military, this ‘General George Patton’ style of leadership plays on fear and requires the constant creation of an enemy to be defeated. Curiously, this approach is increasingly disavowed even and especially by the professional military. There is no question, that this style only serves to intensify the considerable natural hesitancy and resistance to negotiation most people already possess.

If, alternatively, the leadership model of issue or conflict management encourages a process of deliberation, emphasizes the inclusion and integration of different and disparate perspectives, and recognizes the necessity of building a consensus from a muscular middle, then negotiation will be viewed as a valued necessity for a workable agreement. Moving toward this approach, requires a real, not mere hyperbolic, paradigm shift in thinking. To counter the ingrained human neurobiological responses to threat or conflict—either fight or flight—that provides fertile terrain for a ‘hawk’ leader to feed upon, requires the cultivation of a climate that encourages negotiation. For someone in a dispute, negotiation is seldom the first preference. It requires a conscious awareness, intentional choice, and some measure of skill that is not commonly available.

Surprisingly, many professional mediators see little connection between the leadership styles and strategies of political leaders and their work. Perhaps the idea of being an active leader in managing a conflict seems too directive and they prefer to remain more passively within the limited role of being merely a professional third party ‘neutral.’ In addition, for many, mediation practice is predominantly a rational enterprise. Interests and needs are parsed, and costs and benefits of various options are calculated objectively and dispassionately in strict adherence to principles of Rational Decision Making Theory. For many practitioners, being conflict avoidant themselves, there is a tendency to believe that ‘people can and should be separated from the problem at hand,’ with emotional responses contained and politics removed from consideration.

Leaders and conflict mediators, however, are far more similar than dissimilar. In purpose, thinking and practice, to be effective, both must viscerally appreciate and be well studied in what some consider the unseemly art of politics and deal making. They must both recognize that people are seldom the ‘cool headed reasoners’ we would like to think they are, and as likely as not, they are ‘predictably irrational.’ (See Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error, 1994; Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 2008.) The best leaders realize they can not lead by edict and must be well versed and proficient in negotiation and the best know they must observe the underlying politics if agreement is to be obtained.

Both leaders and mediators must operate a clear awareness of the sources and nature of conflict, and appreciate that it is almost always inextricably personal and business at the same time. They both must know how to manage and convert the raw energy of emotion into constructive action and how to appropriately “name, tame, and frame” issues so that they are susceptible to creative problem solving. (See Peter Adler, “Leadership, Mediation and The Naming, Taming and Framing of Problems,” 2004.) Finally, they both must realize that logic is only a small part of decision making and the shortest distance between the problem and the outcome is seldom a straight line. The best mediators are more than mere third party ‘neutrals.’ Especially in working with complex and difficult matters, they are activist leaders that advocate, not for a particular result, but for the pursuit of a durable agreement. Similarly, the best leaders, while they necessarily advocate for particular outcomes, must also know when and how to negotiate a workable deal.

Early observations of President-Elect Obama, admittedly still unproven by action, appear to display the basics of those skill sets. If they are highlighted and given prominence, there is reason to believe their value will seep down into the culture of daily life and support a more constructive way of managing conflict. Specifically, much as an effective mediator does, intuitively or intentionally, Obama appears to think in a systemic frame, as opposed to a linear frame, and he operates from a more flexible protean perspective, un-tethered to any particular ideology or orthodoxy. The systemic perspective allows him to present issues realistically and to establish the necessary awareness of the inter-connection between such concerns as the management of energy resources with global warming, without losing sight of economic ramifications, or the corresponding need for education and health care reform. Likewise, the design of his campaign incorporated a sophisticated understanding of the principles of complexity and in particular, the concept of ‘self-organizing’ systems, all of which was super charged by the ‘state of art’ use internet technology and innovation to create a synergy that spread virally nationwide.

Obama’s personal history, being from a multi-racial and cultural background, offers him up as the embodiment of the ‘protean self’ suggested by Robert J. Lifton in his book of that name. (The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation,1993). He reflects the diverse background and experience of the soon to be majority of the U.S. population. He appears to have applied his innate sensibilities toward becoming a protean leader, as Peter Adler terms it. (“Protean Negotiation: Rejecting Orthodoxy and Shifting Shapes,” 2006.) Obama is seemingly at once a sharp strategist and competitive warrior, a pragmatic and technically proficient problem solver, a headman able to hear and coalesce a ‘team of rivals’, and, finally, a shaman, eloquently setting a moral vision that calls upon our best instincts instead of our worst fears.

Obama’s leadership style offers a model for the highest quality of negotiation and mediation practice and invites emulation and application in other areas. Obama demonstrates a clear recognition that ultimately, his substantive ideas are only as good as the process used to bring them about and that requires negotiation skills, consensus building and inclusive problem solving strategies. His example of pursuing thoughtful agreement is the best advertisement available for mediation and conflict management services in any and every context.

If Obama proves to be an effective a leader, professional mediators and conflict management practitioners would be well advised to take full advantage of his lead and capitalize on the on the example he sets in their work.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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