Fight or flight is coded into the DNA of most mammals, including humans. Given the opportunity to avoid pain, be it physical or emotional, most humans will choose to avoid any conflict. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, for leaders, continually choosing flight over fight will have equal and opposite reactions within the organization.
Choosing the Path of Least Resistance
There is a fine line between consensus and capitulation. As a leader, one may have ideas and goals that are both individual and corporate but align to the overall vision and mission of the organization. Senge points this out in his 5th Discipline. Shared vision is the discipline that binds all employees toward a common goal. But within that shared vision, I have my own idea and goals for my role within the organization, and me personally outside the organization. If these values are aligned, there is harmony and productivity. However, when an organizational leader begins to operate contrary to the shared vision, conflict arises.
When conflict arises within an organization, there are a few approaches that can be chosen: 1) confront it, 2) allow it, 3) find a compromise. Leaders are usually adept at one of these approaches. However, a leader quickly ascertains where they perceive as the fallout of their decision and generally choose the path of least resistance. What will cause the lowest amount of resistance? Sometimes this works. Most of the time it does not.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
As Aristotle pointed out eons ago, where there is no resistance (in a vacuum), something will fill the space. In modern leadership, this law has been observed in an organization. Where there is no resistance, the stronger force flourishes. In our organization, we are a system of many systems. Left unchecked, each system has the potential to view themselves as the raison d être. This has happened in the past both predictably and cyclically. When there is a new leadership, this almost invariably becomes an issue. And, true to form, our leadership generally avoids conflict allowing the new power struggle to thrive.
Choosing Your Battles
One reason leaders avoid conflict is the perception that it never ends. Opening one can of worms just leads to more worms. And that can be the case when dealing with conflict. But the adverse is worse.
Consider the would-be King, David from Israel. When he was a shepherd, he learned to confront unsurmountable conflict—first with a bear and then a lion. He would also face growing conflict with the reigning King Saul. But one of his best moments was on the battlefield against Goliath.
Goliath, a giant of a man, had been taunting the entire Israeli army to join him in one-to-one combat. The winner of battle would reign supremely. The entire Israeli army hid in fear. Along came David. He sized up the situation and decided he could tackle it. He confronted the biggest, baddest dude—arguably the most influential troublemaker in the Philistine organization. Everyone knows the story. David took five stones, but on needed one to drop Goliath to the ground. Then David rushed the body, grabbed Goliath’s own sword and lopped off Goliath’s head. David then turned toward the Israeli army, raising the head of Goliath to the air. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Israeli army trounced the philistines chasing them “as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron”. David do not have to fight every single philistine on the battlefield. He chose the one battle he needed to fight to change the culture
And if you Choose NOT to Choose…
A leader that chooses conflict avoidance will create a new problem within the organization. When organizational systems begin to take on a life of their own, they tend to create large silos within the organization. Trust breaks down and each silo begins to protect its own interests despite the larger organization. This can lead to division, splits, coupe attempts on leadership, and a lot worse! And yet, organizational leaders still choose this option.
Consider King David after he established his reign. One of David’s sons decided that it was time for him to become king. Absolom would visit the local court and give his opinion and settle disputes. He eventually got a name and a reputation. But David let it go. Unfortunately, he let it go to the point that Absolum garnered enough support to form a small rebellion, which he was happy to launch against his own father. And like many other conflict-avoiders, David simply capitulated and abdicated his thrown.
David surrounded himself with powerful men. Men who never shrunk from conflict. Abdicating his thrown, David created a power vacuum that would be filled by the stronger force. In this case it was David’s military advisors, Joab and Abishai, two of the most confrontation characters in the entire bible. David led his rag-tag fleet out of the country across the Jordan river. But Absalom pursued them. He would not rest until David and his followers were dead. Forced into a corner, David acquiesced to the desire of the people, giving the order to Joab and Abishai to go to war with Absalom. The victory was quick and decisive. In the end, David was restored to the throne.
As is always the case, conflict that is not addressed will grow beyond control and require a much larger solution. David could have confronted Absalom and been done with it. However, his reluctance cost the country an immeasurable financial and emotional toll, that climaxed in the death of the renegade leader. It was completely avoidable had David simply chosen conflict over avoidance. And, as is usually the case, avoiding conflict today will only delay the need to engage in worse conflict later.
Is your organization siloed? Do you have a cadre of strong leaders that are doing their own things apart from the shared vision of your organization? The problem is not the organization. The problem is you. Dig deep and find the courage to lead in face of adversity.