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.

9 Responses to “Leadership Without Easy Answers”


  1. 1 Wendy Miller Olapade June 14, 2011 at 1:17 am

    May God bless the difficult place and lead the leaders… thanks for the reminder of what it takes. Running/avoiding is very tempting.
    Wendy Miller Olapade

  2. 3 victoriaschubert June 14, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Margaret, I love the image of the roiling cauldron that you’ve thrown yourselves into by being willing to surface the differences in values among the group. What’s scariest about that place is the idea that as an individual, I may have to yield to others and relinquish my commitment to my own values in the interest of going along with the group. Does safety lie in mapping the areas where our values overlap and intersect? If we can decide what we all have in common, maybe we can agree that our differences don’t have to derail our shared intentions? Tough territory.

  3. 5 John Brock June 15, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    The significant challenge facing a leader in a cauldron situation is that neither fight nor flight is effective. Fight doesn’t work because the leader’s solutions (even if they are the “right” ones) are not the ones that the cauldron is ready to receive. Flight doesn’t work because it is an abdication of leadership and leaves the problems festering.

    As with individuals, it requires time for transformation within communities and time is not something that we, as leaders or followers, are conditioned to respect. We keep looking for that magic box in the flowchart to resolution that is labeled, “A miracle happens.” And then we expect the leader to provide the miracle.

    Miracles DO happen. But, they do not happen on schedule. And, they can not supplied by the leader. They emerge from God and through the community when the community is engaged in the issue while not without getting in God’s way.

    Therein is the challenge – faithful engagement – and the leader’s role.

  4. 6 John Brock June 15, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Leaders somehow expect, and are expected, to provide the miracle of transformation in divisive times and that is not in their power. When it doesn’t happen within someone’s timeframe, the leader leaves or is ousted.

    But, miracles DO happen but they require faith and they do not come on any schedule we might want to devise. Faith and patience are, therefore, the first requirement of leadership both as practices and as teachings.

  5. 7 Margaret Benefiel June 16, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    John, you are so right that miracles DO happen. Thank you for this reminder that they require faith and patience, and that “they emerge from God and through the community when the community is engaged in the issue while not getting in God’s way.” Well-put. I will carry your words with me.

  6. 8 Marcelle Martin June 22, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Margaret, thanks for revealing the deeper layers in a conflict and the need for a leader to help surface the conflicts in values–or the gap between a group’s stated values and reality–and then create a way for the different sides to hear and appreciate one another’s perspectives. Even after hearing one another at a heart level, the group may still need to go through the emptying process the Scott Peck describes in A Different Drum, give up clinging even to values and rely only on Spirit.

    • 9 Margaret Benefiel July 2, 2011 at 4:27 am

      Marcelle, thank you for this insight. Yes, I think the emptying process is also often needed. It is easy for us to cling to our values and forget that relying only on Spirit is foundational. Sometimes that is the only way forward. We need to remember this in my group. Thank you.


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