Sunday, December 4, 2011

How Can You Lead When You Don’t Agree With Your Leader?

Leading can be messy business.  It has its rewards but challenges are never in short supply it seems.  Partly I think leading is complicated because it is relationship based and relationships are always in flux. It is easy when the person you look to for leadership is aligned perfectly with you and the same is true of your relationship with those you lead.  But that doesn’t happen very often.  In a large sense, successful leadership is defined in our ability to be effective in spite of these mis-alignments.  Yes, one of a leader’s most important functions is to improve alignment, but when alignment is a goal and not the reality a leader and those he or she leads must still be effective.

Understanding the other person’s perspective is a key for me when I am in this misaligned state.  To understand I must listen, pay attention, synthesize, evaluate and reach conclusions on why the other person has the perspective they do, its validity and importantly its motivation. 

An interesting thing happens here.  I cannot understand without information.  In order to get the information I need to ask open questions and listen honestly.  I must probe to find out what the other leader believes, why he or she believes it, what experiences or data has led them in this particular direction, and I must be willing to accept that they may be correct.  I must engage our relationship in open dialogue which in turn engenders mutual respect, transparency, and trust.  In the end I may not necessarily agree with their conclusions or they with mine, but if I can understand their process and reasoning I can make an informed decision to support them anyway or continue the dialogue to press my perspective. 

It’s that relationship thing again.  By nurturing it through rough spots I help strengthen it.  By abandoning the effort I weaken it.  By leaving it I lose my voice.

This is not an unimportant point.  People sometimes flee positions because of misalignment conflict, robbing themselves of an opportunity to contribute and mature.  These are conditions that will be repeated often throughout a career.  Fleeing such a situation now does nothing to prepare you for the next.

The value of visible conflict resolution should not be underestimated in its effect on others.  When these types of leadership conflicts exist in organizations it makes people nervous.  There will probably those who are aligned with each side for a variety of reasons, but everyone will know that the leadership tension exists, and that will make people nervous.  Some may even begin postulating negative repercussions of the conflict and then begin to act on those concerns, creating another set of issues that must be overcome.  But, just as everyone will know there is a conflict among leadership they will also know how it is being processed.  They will see when you are honestly looking for ways to make it work, and that fact alone will build their trust in your leadership.  Why?  Because they will see that you take it seriously, are willing to listen and learn, and that you conduct yourself respectfully – all traits that people value in leaders.

Asking yourself what you need to learn about a particular conflict is possibly the most important step when beginning to face a conflict in leadership.  This internal question sets the tone for how you will engage the other leader.  Often you will find that the most important things you have to learn are about yourself.  What is this situation trying to teach me?  What deficiencies do I have in dealing with this situation and how can I improve them?  How can I approach the other leader in a way that encourages transparency?  What is my responsibility to those I lead and the larger organization in this circumstance?  What is really at stake here?  All of these are important questions to ask as you begin to seek information that will contribute to resolution.

Leading really is a relationship thing.  Paying attention to your relationship with other leaders should be a purposed and principled behavior.  Expecting that you will be in perfect alignment with them at all times is not reasonable.  Seeking to fairly understand, communicating and leading effectively as you work to resolve misalignment issues is absolutely expected of you – by those you lead, other leaders, and I hope by you.

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