How Do You Want a Leader to Role Model Conflict?

Recently, I came across two different ways leaders are dealing with the increasing conflict around COVID vaccines.

One warmed my heart, the other one didn’t. The stark contrast tells me how much work there still is to do regarding what conflict competent leadership looks like.
The example that warmed my heart came from US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murth, who was quoted recently as saying:

“We cannot allow… this pandemic to turn us on each other. Our enemy is the virus. It is not one another… We’ve got to listen to each other before we rush to judgment. We’ve got to support one another in our decision making and during times of crisis.” 

This is what responsible leadership in times of conflict looks like. We all have the tendency to make each other our enemy when we see things differently. That’s an inherent feature of being human, with a reptile brain that can feel threat very easily.  So leaders need to be mindful of this, to keep our physiology on track. We want the heard to keep in our mammalian brains and not devolve into consummation by fear.

When leadership knows this, then when conflict arises, we can remind each other to keep separating the person from the problem.

Compare this to a recent COVID-related occurrence in a small community in B.C. The event was very triggering for many, especially because it involved a protest where there were, allegedly, some protestors who entered a school as part of the protest.

Now put “school” and “entered” and “protest” together, and there is going to be a physiological reaction.  See my earlier article for a reminder of how easy it is for our reptilian physiology to be triggered.  So this occurrence needs to be handled, by leadership responsibility – that is, in a way that can calm people down and not continue to incite the fires inside which will only lead to more conflict, stress and, eventually, violence.

That includes being hard on a problem, but soft on the people. We don’t want to make the person the problem, because that leads to wanting to eliminate the person. The US Secretary General makes a point of separating the person from the problem in his statement above.

In this example, leadership makes the people the problem by saying:
“The word ‘Covidiot’ doesn’t even begin to describe how inappropriate the actions of these wack jobs are.”

Calling someone a “wack job” and a “Covidiot” models that it’s okay to call someone names when they have done something. People do things we do not agree with. People even do things that all of society may see as wrong. The question is not whether people will do things that we see as unacceptable.

The question is: How will we respond?

We can respond firmly, clearly and yet kindly, without name calling or shaming.  We can name behaviours without creating that person as an enemy. This capacity to be both kind and firm seems to elude some leaders. Yet, not knowing how to uphold what you believe in, in a way that is respectful to all, serves to create more “us and them” and, eventually, hatred.  Hatred is a very short walk to violence.

If you want to know more on how to be a conflict competent leader and contribute to making the world more safe for all, please check out my other project, the On Conflict Leadership Institute. There, we are promoting a way to engage in conflict and difficult conversations that can bring more collaboration, innovation and respect into times of stress and conflict.

The successful person has unusual skill at dealing with conflict and ensuring the best outcome for all.” Sun Tzu