Bad leadership an ‘inconvenient truth’

Failure to master skills to mitigate conflict detrimental to organizations
By Doug Williamson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/21/2011

The economic turmoil of the past few years has led to serious social disruption, rising financial uncertainty and enormous destruction in value in the global economy.

It would be hard to find a sector, country, household or organization that hasn’t been touched in a negative way by the economic meltdown. The loss of value in the stock market, housing market and employment market, and also in overall reduced industrial performance and productivity, are issues that make headlines.

But it’s odd no one wants to talk about the other way value has been eroded, even though its financial impact is arguably just as great — the loss of value through bad leadership and the failure of leaders to master the necessary skills for managing tension and discord within their business.

Al Gore would call this “an inconvenient truth.” It’s much easier to blame external factors we can’t control than it is to look in the mirror and accept responsibility for the things we can.

The premise is very simple — discord, disagreement, conflict and tension are all part of the human condition and, therefore, a natural part of organizational life. Failure to master the skills necessary to mitigate the negative impact of this social condition and reality (let alone understand it) leads to an unacceptable loss of value on several different levels. It’s time to make a different choice.

The value of discord

Someone once said, “If you’re not moving ahead, you are falling behind.” In a hypercompetitive, increasingly flat and virtually connected world, that sentiment is undoubtedly true. The implications of this simple phrase are enormous and failure to heed the advice is perilous, to say the least.

The challenge for leaders is how to keep their organization sharp and hungry. One way is to harness the energy embedded in conflict and tension, and use it to advantage. This is particularly important when we raise the stakes by asking high-performance teams and business units to work together collaboratively and then charge them with finding new, innovative solutions.

If that is our approach, we must answer three questions:

• Can we harness this energy and direct it in a positive manner?

• Do we really understand what collaboration means?

• What is the essence of the innovation process?

There is a huge disconnect between what many leaders say they want and the steps, processes, mindsets and culture they create in order to help achieve it. Simply put, there are far too many leaders who are not able to adequately answer these important questions. No wonder avoidance is the tonic of choice.

Harnessing energy

There is no question a leader can intentionally create and positively harness healthy energy by mastering the skills and developing the competency to direct discord in all its various forms. It comes down to a willingness to create a set of guiding values and then to live them every day in every way.

These aren’t the kind of values engraved on plaques and placed at various points around the office, they’re the philosophical ones that guide value creation, such as a belief in:

• vigorous dialogue and healthy debate

• allowing opposing ideas to compete out in the open

• seeking the optimal answer, solution or outcome

• personal accountability and shared responsibility for the common cause.

A leader who truly understands wealth creation and wishes to maximize the sustainable value of an enterprise for customers, shareholders and employees understands she is responsible for crafting the culture and creating the conditions that allow the very best people to do their best. The credibility and character of the leader, and that person’s commitment to these values, will allow the discord to be directed for good rather than evil.

Doug Williamson is president and CEO of The Beacon Group, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in organizational transformation and effectiveness programs as well as talent identification and leadership development. He can be reached at douglasw@thebeacongroup.caor visit for more information.

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