Submitted by Shannon Sullivan on November 28, 2016 - 08:11

Conflict and Leadership

Shannon Headshot

The process of partnering with clients on any planning engagement necessitates the hard work of ‘turning in’ and examining organization practices, culture, and effectiveness. This is one of the reasons that engaging in planning on a regular cycle actually increases mission impact—it forces us to examine who we are and how we do what we do, often with outside help from folks like me. As I’ve made the transition from being an Executive Director to being a consultant to nonprofits, I’ve learned that one really valuable role outside consultants can play is to facilitate that ‘turning inward’ during the planning process, and supporting clients as they dig in deep on some of the hard stuff. This includes unearthing and addressing long-untended conflicts more often than not.

While I am a trained mediator and circle-keeper who clearly views conflict resolution as critical to effective programmatic work, it has made me further reflect on the connections between dealing with conflict and effective leadership. I often make the case that Executive Directors and Board Chairs are roles where the expectations are too high—folks in those roles are expected to be experts at staff management, financial oversight, legal compliance, program vision and evaluation, resource development, and the list goes on and on and on...add to those expectations the ‘soft skills’ necessary to cultivate healthy relationships internally and externally and it’s a wonder anyone ever succeeds in those roles. I’m loathe to add to that list, but the ability to recognize and constructively address conflict is critical to effective leadership. Simply being able to put a conflict on the table without judgment and with a clear path toward resolution for all parties is something that, if widely done and recognized, would increase the health of the sector broadly. Imagine a Board Chair who could address the development of factions within the Board effectively and come to an agreement about consensus moving forward. Imagine an Executive Director who could let her Board Treasurer know that how she communicates about the monthly budget reports is often read as terse and negative, thus impacting the Board’s ability to interact with the material in ways they need to. And imagine these things done while all involved are guided by strong and shared organizational values...I know that there will always be situations where it’s time to call in someone like me—human conflict is like that. However, nonprofit leaders building their own skills to recognize and constructively address conflict internally will improve organizational culture and increase the ability to truly make impact.