Leadership, Conflict And Problem-Solving

From the Business Conflict Blog of Peter Phillips.

The New York Times’ November 18, 2010 edition featured a letter by Carl Schiffman of Queens, NY, that brought out concerns that many of us in the problem-solving profession have entertained, concerning the limitations of the mediator’s role. He wrote:

Mr. Obama’s campaign vow to rise above partisanship was much more than mere talk; he seeks to rise above all conflict and become the person who reconciles the divided parties: the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Pakistanis and the Indians, as well as the Democrats and the Republicans closer to home.

It is my serious concern that the president, far from being either aloof or humble, has all along thought of himself not as a political leader struggling to make his point of view prevail, but as a man of peace, with an almost divine mission.

This 75-year old liberal finds the possibilty that President Obama may not be in office after the next election surprisingly painless. I find it entirely just that when a man is too good to fight, he should lose.

Mr. Schiffman challenges some of the core assumptions of problem-solvers. Do we consider ourselves “too good to fight”? Do we cast ourselves as “peacemakers,” as instrumentalities of the divine, while leaving to other, lesser mortals the task of advocating for justice? Do we deserve to “lose”? Can a public leader be a problem-solver while still leading?

As a threshold matter, there are many aspects of public leadership that are plainly inconsistent with the task of a mediator. A political leader advocates policy and seeks public support for it; a mediator (in theory) has no view as to the outcome of a dispute. Having been entrusted with power, a political leader advances policy in the face of opposition from other political factions; a mediator (in theory) treats disputing parties even-handedly and without regard to her own interests. A political leader is empowered to advance certain articulated goals; a mediator (in theory) seeks only to help the disputants identify a mutually beneficial outcome to a conflict so they can return to more socially productive endeavors.

Yet do these distinctions compel the conclusion that leadership necessitates belligerance? The joke goes that legislation, like hot dogs, is something whose ingredients you don’t want to know. This suggests that lots of opposing views have to be accommodated in creating public policy, and that listening to other people’s interests is a critical skill for a political leader.

But when Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was he practicing mediation, or coercion?

More to the point, does a mediator really think he is put on the earth to persuade the lion to lie down with the lamb? I have heard mediators wax eloquent and even weep when describing their own line of work. Gimme a break. Since when does helping resolve a landlord/tenant dispute get glorified into being the servant of the Lord? Talk about doing the work of the Lord, the carpenters who put in the jaw-dropping, beautiful natural wood cabinets in our new kitchen created something far closer to the Peaceable Kingdom than anything I have had the opportunity to achieve for many months.

Like anything worth thinking about, the issue doesn’t lend itself to right-or-wrong, win-or-lose conclusions. It is refreshing to have a leader who thinks in public. It is not refreshing to be led by someone so ineffective that he encounters difficulty passing legislation even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress. The test of a mediator, they say, is a mutual level of dissatisfaction among the settling disputants. The test of a leader, surely, is effecting change.

At least two helpful (if perhaps unwelcome) truths seem to arise from Mr. Schiffman’s letter. One is that power achieves its highest social utility when it is exercized. The other is that you can’t really mediate a problem that you want to come out a certain way.

Mr. Schiffman also implies a third truth, for mediators: Get over yourself.


F. Peter Phillips

F. Peter Phillips is a commercial arbitrator and mediator with substantial experience providing consultation on the management of business disputes to companies around the globe. A cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College and a magna cum laude graduate of New York Law School, Mr. Phillips served for nearly ten years… MORE >

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