As leaders we often see conflict on the horizon. In fact, leadership is invariably defined in terms of conflict: the tension that arises between present reality – things as they are – and a desired future – things as they might be. It doesn’t stop there. Leadership encounters many other forms of conflict – between the individual and the organization, participation and direction, innovation and continuity, and so on.
While on the surface it might seem that the leader’s job is to resolve these seeming contradictions, most conflicts leaders face are surprisingly irresolvable when addressed merely through action to get from point A to point B. While we may seek to bring about a certain change – for example, developing greater collective intelligence – these changes often represent an underlying polarity that will persist over time, and which is simply being rebalanced or integrated through the present action.
There are tools, such as Polarity Management, which show us an elegant way to see and work with the underlying polarities inherent in many sources of conflict. What we think of as “problems,” for example, are often simply efforts to go from the downside of one pole to the upside of another. For example, imagine you are on a team that is mired in process and discussion and find yourself wanting to scream, “can’t somebody just make a decision and go!” What you are experiencing may be the downside of an excessively participative leadership – one side of the participative / directive polarity. If you start to move away from this unconsciously, resistance may arise as fear of the downside of the directive pole – too much autocratic decision-making, etc.
The end of conflict takes a deeper turn, however, as we look at how polarities evolve in the development of consciousness and leadership. Developmental theories such as the STAGES model and its elaborations originally described by Terri O’Fallon in her recent, award-winning paper, reveal a deeper pattern of our changing relationship to polarities as we develop.
First, we may see only one side of a polarity. For example, we may see that only quality matters. Later, we might, through a series of unpleasant but inevitable challenges, realize that the world is more complex. We must make cost and quality tradeoffs. Still later, we may see that cost and quality are two contexts from which we can see and which over time must be balanced. We may finally see that cost and quality are two sides of the same coin, i.e., that we can never have quality unless we have cost constraints and vice versa. They represent a single, emergent process. Seeing this unified process, we naturally lead others, perhaps those polarized in the tradeoff, with simplicity, compassion, and grace.
How we relate to polarities evolves in a pattern throughout life – first seeing conflict, then choice, then both sides, then a co-emergence. This pattern repeats, over time, with more and more subtle polarities.
As leaders, charged with confronting and transcending conflict, it is essential that we understand how conflict arises in how we see the world, more than the how the world really is. We must accept responsibility for the conflict in our own consciousness before we can begin to address it effectively in the world. In doing so, we become a clearer vehicle to integrate and transcend our deepest challenges and to bring about a positive future.
The conflict between the present and the future is really a conflict of imagination. Resolve that, and the future can begin, now.
Photo credit: Hindsight - 2883 by suburbanbloke on Flickr