I asked the students to think to themselves whether or not each of the words had a positive or negative connotation for them, and then had them move to one side of the room or another. As you might be able to guess, the class was mostly split for each of the words, and it mostly had to do with the experiences they have had in their lives. A negative concept of conflict can come from how one's family deals with it in their homes, or how one's supervisor at work handles it; a negative concept of politics emerges when one gets caught in a trap or feels manipulated by others who use political action for personal gain; and a negative concept of power comes about when one witnesses or is personally harmed by one who abuses power, whether that be someone at work, at church or in the home.
I chose these three words to dialogue around as a result of having the class read both Ronald Heifitz's The Practice of Adaptive Leadership and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Heifitz encourages his readers to act politically to get things accomplished and to actually orchestrate conflict so as to surface the important issues within a group setting. MLK's letter (which several of them admitted to crying as they read it) brought to the surface how one can use these three ideas in a manner that can bring about positive change. It was fun to watch the students wrestle with their own understanding of these words and help them remove value from them and see them as tools to use in their leadership.
So what do these three words have to do with one's own leadership? Here is a quick run at my belief around these words (which will tell you as much about me as it does the words):
- POWER - this can either be positional power (president, CEO, mother, pastor, etc) or referential power (you have it because others have given it to you)...if you have it, use it!...be careful not to abuse it...the more you give away, the more you get...use it sparingly...understand that it comes and goes quickly (even if you are in a position of power, you still may not have it)
- POLITICS - this is more about "acting politically" which means creating friends, alliances, transactions, and relationships...there is a time for "you scratch my back and I'll scratch your back...use it for the greater good...build in a mechanism for checks and balances...surround yourself with people who are smarter than you (and listen to them)...don't be afraid to ask people for help
- CONFLICT - you may want to re-frame the word to make it easier to swallow(heated dialogue)...you can soften it by asking questions rather than making statements...bring it out in the open and be willing to listen to an opposing view...be comfortable with the idea that not all conflict gets resolved...teach people in your organization how to engage in healthy conflict...always remember that you might be wrong...encourage everyone around the table to speak...get rid of Robert's Rules of Order...remember that conflict in the room is better than conflict in the parking lot
There you have it - three little words that can make or break one's leadership, depending on how they view the ideas and how they embrace them in their day to day living. What are YOUR thoughts on these words?