The Obama Presidency and the Future of the Conflict Management Business: The Mediative Leader and the Activist Mediator


by Robert Benjamin

November 2008

Robert Benjamin While premature to presume, there is cause to believe, or at least to hope, based on the model of his presidential campaign that the leadership style and governance of President-Elect Barack Obama will be a boon to conflict management practice and a valuable endorsement of mediation.

How leaders lead---their style and approach to managing problems ----sets the tone and has direct influence on how the general public responds to and deals with conflict in every other context. There is a ‘trickle down’ effect. Leadership style in matters of state, be they domestic or geopolitical, directly influences the willingness or hesitancy of people to consider negotiation or mediation as a viable approach to settling an individual’s divorce or business dispute in daily life. While seemingly wholly unrelated, people watch how leaders operate and follow their lead.

People take note, directly or directly, how the President of the United States operates. If he or she is prone to acting unilaterally, quick to take risks, and decisive without a process of deliberation, the message is clear that negotiation is of lesser importance. This muscular form of leadership, still prevalent in many quarters, remains for many the traditional idea of what a leader should be. Borrowed from the military, this ‘General George Patton’ style of leadership plays on fear and requires the constant creation of an enemy to be defeated. Curiously, this approach is increasingly disavowed even and especially by the professional military. There is no question, that this style only serves to intensify the considerable natural hesitancy and resistance to negotiation most people already possess.

If, alternatively, the leadership model of issue or conflict management encourages a process of deliberation, emphasizes the inclusion and integration of different and disparate perspectives, and recognizes the necessity of building a consensus from a muscular middle, then negotiation will be viewed as a valued necessity for a workable agreement. Moving toward this approach, requires a real, not mere hyperbolic, paradigm shift in thinking. To counter the ingrained human neurobiological responses to threat or conflict---either fight or flight---that provides fertile terrain for a ‘hawk’ leader to feed upon, requires the cultivation of a climate that encourages negotiation. For someone in a dispute, negotiation is seldom the first preference. It requires a conscious awareness, intentional choice, and some measure of skill that is not commonly available.

Surprisingly, many professional mediators see little connection between the leadership styles and strategies of political leaders and their work. Perhaps the idea of being an active leader in managing a conflict seems too directive and they prefer to remain more passively within the limited role of being merely a professional third party ‘neutral.’ In addition, for many, mediation practice is predominantly a rational enterprise. Interests and needs are parsed, and costs and benefits of various options are calculated objectively and dispassionately in strict adherence to principles of Rational Decision Making Theory. For many practitioners, being conflict avoidant themselves, there is a tendency to believe that ‘people can and should be separated from the problem at hand,’ with emotional responses contained and politics removed from consideration.

Leaders and conflict mediators, however, are far more similar than dissimilar. In purpose, thinking and practice, to be effective, both must viscerally appreciate and be well studied in what some consider the unseemly art of politics and deal making. They must both recognize that people are seldom the ‘cool headed reasoners’ we would like to think they are, and as likely as not, they are ‘predictably irrational.’ (See Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error, 1994; Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 2008.) The best leaders realize they can not lead by edict and must be well versed and proficient in negotiation and the best know they must observe the underlying politics if agreement is to be obtained.

Both leaders and mediators must operate a clear awareness of the sources and nature of conflict, and appreciate that it is almost always inextricably personal and business at the same time. They both must know how to manage and convert the raw energy of emotion into constructive action and how to appropriately “name, tame, and frame” issues so that they are susceptible to creative problem solving. (See Peter Adler, “Leadership, Mediation and The Naming, Taming and Framing of Problems,” 2004.) Finally, they both must realize that logic is only a small part of decision making and the shortest distance between the problem and the outcome is seldom a straight line. The best mediators are more than mere third party ‘neutrals.’ Especially in working with complex and difficult matters, they are activist leaders that advocate, not for a particular result, but for the pursuit of a durable agreement. Similarly, the best leaders, while they necessarily advocate for particular outcomes, must also know when and how to negotiate a workable deal.

Early observations of President-Elect Obama, admittedly still unproven by action, appear to display the basics of those skill sets. If they are highlighted and given prominence, there is reason to believe their value will seep down into the culture of daily life and support a more constructive way of managing conflict. Specifically, much as an effective mediator does, intuitively or intentionally, Obama appears to think in a systemic frame, as opposed to a linear frame, and he operates from a more flexible protean perspective, un-tethered to any particular ideology or orthodoxy. The systemic perspective allows him to present issues realistically and to establish the necessary awareness of the inter-connection between such concerns as the management of energy resources with global warming, without losing sight of economic ramifications, or the corresponding need for education and health care reform. Likewise, the design of his campaign incorporated a sophisticated understanding of the principles of complexity and in particular, the concept of ‘self-organizing’ systems, all of which was super charged by the ‘state of art’ use internet technology and innovation to create a synergy that spread virally nationwide.

Obama’s personal history, being from a multi-racial and cultural background, offers him up as the embodiment of the ‘protean self’ suggested by Robert J. Lifton in his book of that name. (The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation,1993). He reflects the diverse background and experience of the soon to be majority of the U.S. population. He appears to have applied his innate sensibilities toward becoming a protean leader, as Peter Adler terms it. (“Protean Negotiation: Rejecting Orthodoxy and Shifting Shapes,” 2006.) Obama is seemingly at once a sharp strategist and competitive warrior, a pragmatic and technically proficient problem solver, a headman able to hear and coalesce a ‘team of rivals’, and, finally, a shaman, eloquently setting a moral vision that calls upon our best instincts instead of our worst fears.

Obama’s leadership style offers a model for the highest quality of negotiation and mediation practice and invites emulation and application in other areas. Obama demonstrates a clear recognition that ultimately, his substantive ideas are only as good as the process used to bring them about and that requires negotiation skills, consensus building and inclusive problem solving strategies. His example of pursuing thoughtful agreement is the best advertisement available for mediation and conflict management services in any and every context.

If Obama proves to be an effective a leader, professional mediators and conflict management practitioners would be well advised to take full advantage of his lead and capitalize on the on the example he sets in their work.



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Biography




Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care.  A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now  teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally.  He is a standing Adjunct Professor at  the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities.   He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution.    He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,”  “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for Mediate.com. 

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Website: www.rbenjamin.com

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Comments



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 Sally ,   S. Burlington VT    01/30/09 
 Explaining Our Collective Experience Through Words 
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As a woman who practices peace and circle gatherings regularly; holding space, deep listening, agreeing to disagree, truth telling and negotiating differences and objections comes naturally to me. A lot of us, try to be like president Obama and role model grace under pressure. But to be able to so eloquently put words on the page about this new " heart centered" leadership, role modeling and way of communicating brings the clarity home. I can only hope to write as well one day, and articulate so beautifully all that I feel inside. Thank you for a wonderful and timely article that raises the bar once again on our awareness.
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 Lester ,   Clarkston GA    12/05/08 
 Addendum 
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Robert, my apologies for changing your name to Richard in my comment. My late father's name was Richard and he was a man of perception and a peacemaker. I guess while I read your piece, you reminded me of him and thus the faux pas. Cheers!
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 Lester Rennard,   Clarkston GA    12/05/08 
 Very Enlightening Commentary 
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Richard has expressed some very thought provoking and enlightened opinions on the leadership direction in which he sees the Obama presidency heading and its implications for the field of conflict management. I am impressed with his great sense of discernment and wholeheartedly share his observations and conclusions. The times in which we live demands for leaders who demonstrate their strength and wisdom not by carrying about a club to subdue those who are in disagreement with their views but who will willingly listen to those whom they desire to influence. They will understand that regardless of culture, language, nationality or ideology, we all share one common human predisposition - the desire to be heard and to have our dignity acknowledged and validated. Such leaders will also understand that the most effective way to destroy an ideological opponent is not to mortify him but to seek to understand the interest that lies behind the positions that are in conflict and to jointly work at finding those options that will reconcile rather than ostracize. We may use power to intimidate and subdue those who are powerless but we do not transform them into allies who will willingly cooperate with us for the common good. We may also use that same power to acknowledge the rights, interests and dignity of the same group and have them among our most ardent supporters and allies. In the months and years ahead as the Obama presidency takes shape and demonstrates its mettle, we can only trust that what we are now observing will serve to transform the perceptions of how America is viewed. In the substantive areas of his foreign and domestic policies and in how they are administered, one hopes that his administration will influence those perceptions and focus them on the ideals that are at the foundation of what makes America a truly great nation and thus win over the confidence and cooperation of at least some of our opponents both domestic and abroad. Conflict management and dispute resolution practitioners understand this dynamic quite well. As Richard rightly suggests, the attitude of the commander-in-chief has a trickle down effect and has a way of infecting the attitudes of the rank and file. This fresh focus on proven and effective ways on managing and resolving conflicts from the highest political leadership of this nation will no doubt boost the business and credibility of the field of conflict management.
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 Susan Macey,   Denver CO    11/13/08 
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Well said! President-elect Obama represents hope on many levels for many people. Although many have and will continue to criticize him for being "weak", the fear mongers did not succeed this time!
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 Bob O'Donnell,   Woodstock VT  BobODonnell!@WoodstockInstitute.com      11/13/08 
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Bravo, Robert! Thank you for your eloquent words on the hope Obama represents for the US of A, the World, and our field of negotiation and mediation.
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