Archive for June, 2011

Leadership Without Easy Answers

One of the groups of which I am a part is embroiled in a difficult conflict.  There is great pain on all sides as we struggle to find a way forward.  Sometimes hurtful words are exchanged and the wounds deepen.

I have been asking myself, “Who can lead us through this? What does it mean to exercise leadership in the midst of this situation?”

Ronald Heifetz, in Leadership Without Easy Answers, points out that human communities tend to look for leaders who can provide answers, especially in the midst of difficult situations.  We look for someone to rise up and solve our problems.  Yet, Heifetz explains, most of our conflicts are due to conflicts in values, and if a leader tries to take a group in a direction without surfacing the conflicts in values and helping the group wrestle with them, the leader gets scapegoated.  The group blames the leader for not solving the problems, rejects the leader and looks for another one, and the cycle repeats itself.

Heifetz believes that a leader’s job is to help surface the conflicts in values in a group (or the gap between a group’s stated values and reality) and then help frame the discussion so that the different sides can begin to hear and appreciate one another’s perspectives.  It is in this roiling cauldron of people speaking their hearts’ truths and listening to one another that the real work occurs.  It is only then that a group can begin to find a way forward.

The roiling cauldron is no fun, and that’s exactly where we are in my group.  I realize now that we have had the benefit of good leadership, both from individuals and from subgroups within our larger group, that has plunged us into this cauldron.  It would have been easy to try to paper over the conflicts and look for a superficial solution.  Instead, we are right where we need to be, and it is painful and messy.

The next step of leadership for us will come from individuals or subgroups who can help us stay in the cauldron, who will call us on our behavior when we try to jump out and run away. They will help frame the questions and the venues for considering those questions in a way that will move us forward.

I don’t know yet how that leadership will arise.  I do know that it won’t come with easy answers.  And I also know that, once we do the painful, messy work of facing our conflicts in values, listening to and learning to appreciate one another, and eventually finding our way forward, our foundation will be much stronger than it would have been had we settled for easy answers.