Great Leaders Embrace Competition and Conflict

Posted: May 1, 2010 in Leadership

One of the most powerful things a leader can do is surround him or herself with competent people. Unfortunately, I often encounter leaders in positions of trust and authority that prefer weak subordinates. This condition stems from three fears. The first is the fear of being challenged or replaced by a more competent subordinate. The second is the fear of conflict, that there must be complete team harmony for it to function well. The final one is probably the most common; it is the fear of being disliked. Let’s look at each of these fears along with some relevant counterexamples.

Fear of Being Challenged. If ever there was a leader who should have feared being challenged and undermined it was Abraham Lincoln. His cabinet was made up of his main adversaries in the presidential election of 1860: Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, and William Seward. Instead of surrounding himself with men he knew wouldn’t challenge him, he purposely included them in his cabinet, and all in positions that were critical for his presidency and the Civil War effort. He knew the wisdom to keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer. This sounds Machiavellian, but it is also quite practical.

Had Lincoln kept them out of his cabinet, he would have had much less control over their actions. Also, he no doubt recognised that in a democracy, powerful people are usually the most competent. They also have followers and organizations backing them, are tremendously motivated, and can get things done through influence and negotiation. In other words, they are exactly the type of person you would want working for you during a national crisis. What’s more, Lincoln was able to work his considerable charm and goodwill to turn these erstwhile political adversaries into a team of rivals, to use the expression of Lincoln historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Fear of Conflict. This fear usually comes out in two ways. In the first, the leader is so insecure and afraid of challenge and conflict that he or she terrorizes the subordinates into submission. People who question the leader’s decisions and who raise uncomfortable issues are punished or marginalized. Political dictators are like this, Hitler and Stalin being two notable examples. It takes a confident leader to allow and even encourage scepticism and questioning by subordinates. The legendary business leader Alfred Sloan, who built General Motors into the largest and most profitable automobile manufacturer in the world in the 1930s and 40s, once stopped a meeting with his top executives because they were acquiescing to all his ideas. He reputedly told them to come back when they were ready to disagree with him and had something more interesting to say.

In its second form, the fear of conflict appears as groupthink, where the team is so afraid of disagreement and conflict that it becomes paralysed. The leader and members don’t realize that the team is slowly dying from a lack of creative tension and internal competition. This mentality can feed an insecure leader’s ego, because everyone agrees with him. In addition, influential members become self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy and isolate the leadership from the “rank and file.” The only antidote to groupthink is for the leader to encourage debate and to publicly deflate the guardians, because they themselves are getting an ego rush in their self-appointed role of protector.

Fear of Being Disliked. This is perhaps the most insidious, simply because, after all, leaders are human. Who doesn’t want to be liked, appreciated, and accepted by others? In my military career, I had to learn the hard way that trying to be liked by your subordinates is the booby prize of leadership, especially if you’ve been handed a difficult mission or task. A commanding officer once told us that the key to effective leadership is to be respected, not liked. He couldn’t have been more right, as I learned over the years.

There is no such thing as unconditional love and appreciation. This is all the more true in business, organizations, and leadership, the whole point of which are to get things done, some of them not necessarily pleasant or always uplifting. Leaders must keep a reserve of distance and perspective, but instead they often fall pray to compliments and flattery. They use their leadership position to stroke their fragile egos rather than to get the job done. This is why it is critical for leaders to have a personal support system of significant others to provide love as well as mentors and advisors who provide learning and objective criticism.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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