The Dirty Little Secret About Conflict

A few years ago, a fellow pastor friend and I were at a retreat listening to Ruth Haley Barton talk about strengthening the soul of our leadership. We were in a quiet room of about 30 other pastors and students all listening intently. In the middle of her talk, she just briefly mentioned that it is impossible to be successful in leadership without conflict. I literally laughed out loud (which was extremely awkward as she was not making a joke). As all eyes turned to me, Ruth also looked my way, curious as to what was so funny. Before I realized it I blurted out, “Oh Ruth, you have no idea how successful I have been this year!”

What I learned that day with Ruth and my inappropriate laughter was this difficult truth:

Conflict is not failure.

It really is impossible to be successful in leadership without conflict. (Why don’t they teach us this in business school and seminaries?) This was a defining leadership moment for me – a lesson I will take with me for the rest of my life.

You see, I am a change agent – and with every change comes at least a little conflict. And with every conflict I had experienced in every job, the leadership above me had communicated their full support, and yet I never felt their full approval. They would assure me I was doing a great job in a difficult time, and yet the underlying message I received was that if I had led or communicated differently, better, the outcome would have been a completely peaceful situation. With every conflict, I felt I had failed as a leader – that if only I had done something better, said something better, just been a better leader, the whole situation would have worked out just fine.

You pray, you plan, and you do your absolute best. And someone disagrees. A group doesn’t like your decision. Another leader is offended. A war breaks out over a mountain or a molehill.

Conflict in leadership is unavoidable.

As leaders we are responsible for our decisions, our communication, and how we shepherd those we lead. How we respond to conflict, and how we let it affect our leadership, is our responsibility as well. I must have realistic expectations – there will be conflict now and then. Conflict does not make me a failure. Period. In fact, I can’t be a successful leader without it.

What messages have you received about conflict as a leader? How has that shaped your outlook?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “The Dirty Little Secret About Conflict

  1. I would have laughed out loud too! It would have been nice to have someone to do that inappropriately together!

    Honestly, the bigger problem for me has been my own internal messages about conflict. I struggle to put something on the table that will probably lead to conflict because I often don’t trust that it will be worked through well. My current team is helping me to grow up in this way. I can truthfully and lovingly bring anything up and we will work through it together. I work in a para church organization and I hope this is training me to learn how to do this in other spheres as well.

    I believe this is a great weakness in the American church and I’m so glad you’ve discussed it here. Blessings to you!