The Elephant in the Boardroom: How Leaders Use and Manage Conflict to Reach Greater Levels of Success

The Elephant in the Boardroom: How Leaders Use and Manage Conflict to Reach Greater Levels of Success

by Edgar Papke

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"When leaders fail to confront conflict, they become the 'biggest elephant' in the room."

In a survey of more than 4,000 CEOs, executives, and managers, more than 90 percent admitted they were uncomfortable confronting or engaging in conflict.

Yet leaders must realize that every conflict presents an opportunity to reach higher levels of performance. In The Elephant in the Boardroom, award-winning leadership psychologist Edgar Papke explores the unique and challenging relationship that leaders have with conflict, and offers the know-how needed to use conflict as the engine of innovation and creativity. As a result, you will learn how to act courageously and be better equipped to lead and win in today's complex and turbulent world.

The Elephant in the Boardroom will help you:

  • Better understand the unique relationship leaders have with conflict.
  • Gain the self-knowledge required to confront conflict and attain higher levels of leadership performance.
  • Learn how to foster cultures of openness and higher accountability.
  • Identify the sources of dysfunctional conflict to create constructive change effectively.
  • Learn to use a proven, seven-step model for effectively managing and leveraging conflict.

    Are you ready to confront the "big elephant in the room," and manage the elephants living and thriving in your organization?
  • Product Details

    ISBN-13: 9781632650153
    Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
    Publication date: 10/19/2015
    Edition description: First Edition
    Pages: 224
    Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

    About the Author

    Edgar Papke is a student and teacher of leadership and the human art of business. He coaches and consults with leaders and their teams in a wide range of industries and institutions. Edgar is a globally recognized, award-winning speaker and author known for his authenticity and innovative approach. He is the author of True Alignment: Linking Company Culture to Customer Needs for Extraordinary Results, and has written extensively about conflict management and resolution. He has degrees in organizational psychology, international business administration, and the culinary arts. Edgar resides in Louisville, Colorado.

    Read an Excerpt



    The world we have created continues to evolve at an increasing pace. During the past century, the psychological effect of the spiraling rate of change on virtually every human being is dizzying. As we speed toward a future full of increasingly difficult challenges, the result is a world that continues to become more complex.

    In order to keep pace with this increased complexity, we have created more intricate and demanding expectations for leaders. We have not only set the bar higher for leaders to be successful, but we have also created myriad complex hoops for them to jump through.

    During the past several decades, the study of leadership has continued to expand. Our definition of great leadership has taken on a broadening set of competencies, ideas, values, performance demands, and expectations for accountability. It leaves one wondering: What school of thought, form of influence, or characteristics and traits does a leader need to be successful?

    Such circumstances can make effective leadership a grim proposition. It creates a definition of success so confusing that it keeps potentially good — and especially great — leaders from emerging, leaders the world is yearning for. It is as if society has shaped a context and set of conditions in which individuals avoid the responsibility to lead. This includes individuals in business organizations, governments, and institutions of learning.

    When I ask people to identify what great leaders do, I always expect to get a wide range of responses. Great leaders:

    • Create and communicate a vision.

    • Define the mission.

    • Articulate purpose.

    • Hold others accountable.

    • Make great decisions.

    • Collaborate.

    • Take the right risks.

    • Need to be lifelong learners.

    • Are always aligned with their values and beliefs.

    • Successfully coach others.

    • Challenge themselves and others.

    • Strive for continuous improvement.

    • Build great teams.

    • Ask the right questions.

    • Drive innovation.

    • Lead by example.

    • Set clear expectations.

    You get the point. And as you can imagine, the list goes on. I'm sure you can add a few I have not mentioned. These expectations are hard to argue against; they are all valid examples of what leaders do to succeed.

    Eventually, the expectations of what success looks like gets into some seriously challenging territory, often resulting in demands virtually impossible for any human being to meet. These demands include talents and virtues such as seeing into the future, having an answer to every problem, anticipating the next great trend, not making mistakes, always saying the right thing, keeping every commitment, always being truthful, and having the thick skin of a rhino.

    In the end, it's clear that the long list of expectations we hold for leaders creates a daunting task. Whether provided by the scholars of leadership, the armchair blogging experts with lists such as "10 Amazing Things," "15 Essential Skills," "23 Qualities," "9 Pursuits," "12 Habits," and "101 Things Great Leaders Do," or the formulas and approaches prescribed by the thousands of leadership development courses and coaching programs, it's no wonder that most of today's leaders are willing to try just about anything to succeed. It is big business, with everyone that has anything to say about leadership jumping into the fray and playing the market to sell their version of the secret sauce, the hidden gems, or a new and bold paradigm of leadership.

    The result is that anyone paying attention to it all and trying just a fraction of the available solutions winds up pursuing a hit-and-miss approach that is confusing, unfocused, and inconsistent. It also causes them to jump from one approach or popular fad to another. Ultimately, it's a minefield so fraught with the possibility of failure that leaders turn to playing it safe, not taking risks, and avoiding the more difficult issues and challenges we face.

    As much as organizations undertake fads in leadership development, why have they failed to take hold? The fact is that the expectations are so broad and confusing, that most people who undertake leadership roles eventually lose their motivation to lead. Or they succumb to holding on to their position, fearful of doing things differently and risk losing it. They are afraid of failing because it has become so easy to fail.

    As we look to the future, it is important to regain a perspective of leadership that engages potential future leaders and offers a clear path to success. For the past 25 years, I have had the good fortune of spending most of my time studying and exploring leadership and working with and coaching leaders. As a result, I've concluded that all the activities leaders engage in — every pursuit, action, and interaction — ultimately result in three expectations we have of great leaders. It is with these expectations that we now begin exploring the role of conflict in leadership.

    Above all else, we expect great leaders to do three things successfully: 1) create change; 2) confront conflict; and 3) strive for self-knowledge. If this sounds simplistic, I suggest you go through the long lists and offerings of what great leaders do and sort them into these three distinct core expectations. You'll find that virtually all of the things leaders do contribute to these three pursuits. The three are interdependent and, therefore, have equal value and importance.

    Creating Change

    A good place to start is exploring and understanding expectations of creating change. There are several good reasons to believe that the origins of leadership came from the desire of human beings for control and, on their own terms, manifesting change. It is also important to recognize that the desire to create change results from the need to confront conflict, which itself comes from the tension created by the gap between what we have and what we want. We look to leaders to address this gap and show us the path to resolving it.

    When a situation arises for the need for change and action, the first person to act typically takes on the leadership role. For example: A group of people is confronted with an unwanted circumstance and an action or intervention is needed. For some reason, they want something to change. It might simply be that they are dissatisfied with what they have and want more. Or, they are in some way threatened and there is a condition that requires a response. The first person to act, to step up and engage others in taking action to creating a resolution, becomes the de facto leader. For lack of a better analogy, the person is filling a leadership vacuum. And if the action he or she takes and leads others to undertake succeeds, it further establishes their leadership influence.

    This is an undeniable aspect of the phenomenon of leadership. Those that can create change are looked to as leaders. When they do it on a grander scale, they become our heroes. Like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates, their names are reminders of what is possible, how we can attain a brighter future, how we can overcome the forces that keep us from moving ahead, and how we can fulfill our deepest desires and needs. They are the shining lights of leadership. They are the individuals willing to step out and take the risk to confront a situation and create change. When a leader does so successfully, he or she gets the added benefit of trust from those who are willing to follow. The truth is that we all want change; we just long to have a sense of control over it. As human beings, we are naturally engaged in the quest for the mastery of change. To verify this, all one has to do is look at the accelerating rate of change we are engaged in and the realization of human potential that results in the extraordinary levels of creativity and innovation. Many leaders of organizations and companies speak the language of innovation and improvement. What they are actually talking about is creating change.

    Articulating and communicating a vision, defining a mission or purpose, taking a new or radical approach, and showing others a path to success are all activities and elements of creating change. Being creative and innovative, seeking solutions to our biggest social and business problems, and collaborating and forming partnerships with others are all a part of fulfilling the expectation of creating change. Having a strategy is simply having a plan for change.

    We are never satisfied. When a leader successfully leads us to accomplish the change we seek, the next questions we ask are, "What's next?" and "What else can you do for us?" We have an ever present and unsatisfied hunger for change. It is what moves us forward in life and keeps our world advancing. What we often overlook is that our desire for change is the result of conflict. This conflict is the expression of the natural tension that comes from the gap between what we have and what we long for. The result of that conflict is the expectation that a leader will emerge and confront it, thereby leading us to create the change needed to manifest a resolution that meets our needs.

    The ability of a leader to create positive change requires not only clearly articulating and consistently communicating a vision of the future state, but also emotionally engaging others, connecting them to the needs that motivate them. In order to do this effectively, you must have the trust of others. To do so successfully most often requires that you undertake the challenge to change your own way of how you do things. As a leader, you must be willing to change, grow, and evolve.

    As everything in our world is changing and we look to leaders to guide us, why do we so often see leaders not willing to change themselves? Is this why so many of our institutions are lacking leadership? To expect others to engage in change and truly alter how things get done requires that you role model and reinforce the ability to change yourself. New habits in how you role model change will require new behaviors. This includes changes in how you engage with and influence others.

    Confronting Conflict

    When we create change, we invite and confront conflict. The interdependence of change and conflict is one of the great forces and natural tensions of human behavior. Yet, we often don't realize this relationship. I find that even among leaders, this relationship is often overlooked until they realize that they experience it all the time. It is a constant state that leaders live in.

    Conflict and the desire for change are what bring us together. The energy of the relationship between conflict and change is also what tears us apart. It is through this dynamic tension that the need to confront conflict emerges. Yet, all too often leaders avoid doing so. This is problematic and lies at the center of the failure of so many leaders to effectively manage the many conflicts they face. Most leaders will say that they are uncomfortable with conflict and do not like to confront it.

    Each year, through workshops, presentations, and coaching, I have the privilege of working and interacting with more than 1,000 Chief Executives, business leaders, and community leaders. Often, our conversations bring us to a place of significant intimacy. Regardless of where the conversation starts, the vast majority of time our dialogues end up being about conflict. More often than not, we focus on avoidance and the difficulty to confront conflict. I then ask, why as leaders, they do not confront conflict? What I have learned is that the dislike of conflict and confrontation among leaders stems from three key reasons: 1) the fear of being or appearing incompetent and failing; 2) the fear of being disliked; and 3) the absence of a perspective and belief that confronting conflict presents them with opportunity.

    The first of these, the fear of being or appearing incompetent, is the one that keeps most leaders from constructively confronting conflict. It begins with the notion that leaders are supposed to get it right, have the answers, be the smartest person in the room, and know the right things to do. I have observed that for leaders, it is not always just about being right; it is often about being competent in getting there. Unfortunately, most leaders are not given the opportunity to learn about conflict at a level that develops the competencies, skills, and know-how they need to be effective.

    Few leaders receive training and development in conflict management. Those who do, however, typically attend a day or two of training and do not receive the benefit of ongoing coaching, guidance, and feedback on how to apply their learning. Without sustained development, it is no wonder they don't undergo noticeable or sustained improvement. Most leaders learn how to manage conflict through trial and error. Even more doomed are the leaders that experience only the aggressive aspects of conflict and, because they are always busy winning and satisfying themselves, never learn to collaborate and engage in shared problem solving with others.

    The consequences of appearing incompetent include feeling stupid, inept, and incapable. Leaders often tell me that when it comes to confronting conflict, they "feel like a failure." Underlying this are feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, and shame that results from thinking you are not good enough. The fear of appearing incompetent is a powerful reason for leaders to avoid conflict. And whereas leaders often state that they ignore conflicts in their organizations because they are not worth their time, are not important enough, or are without value, when we look deeper we typically find that the fear of not being competent to manage conflict is the root cause. It is easy to ignore something that is laden with potentially negative consequences. Unfortunately, in the absence of competency, leaders will usually fall back on the "my way or the highway" approach. After all, when you don't have another option, you often turn to what you believe is the proven course of action and one you're most familiar with.

    The notion that a conflict is not worth your time is often deceiving. In most cases, what does not appear important enough to engage in now will more than likely require your attention later. When it does, it will likely take more time and attention than if you had confronted it the first time. Frequently, a conflict ignored will present itself again. The consequence of this procrastination is that the conflict has had time to further develop and fester. The same conflict will then likely appear as a more difficult problem and will have stronger emotional attachments.

    The second most frequent response as to why leaders do not like conflict is fear of not being liked. This fear is a very powerful force. We all want to be liked and loved. Not only do leaders want to be liked and loved, they also want to be admired for who they are and what they represent. The idea that their values and beliefs are to be revered and respected by others gives value to the leader and his or her self-concept. It is an all too often accepted fallacy that a leader need not be liked, only respected. To some degree, we all want to be liked, loved, and accepted by others. It is human.

    Being liked influences one's ability and desire to be open and honest. For all of us, the idea of honestly confronting a conflict is fraught with the risk of being personally rejected. In simple terms, if I am honest with you and confront a difference we have, you may reject or not like me for it. And whereas vulnerability may put one at risk of appearing incompetent, the greater risk is that others will not like us because we told them something they didn't want to hear. As we'll explore further in Part Three, the fear of rejection for sharing one's truth influences how honestly we can confront one another and whether we choose to withhold our truth or openly express it.

    The third source of avoiding conflict is the perceived absence of opportunity. More often than not, leaders say things such as, "there's nothing in it for me" or "it's not worth my time." This perspective is a big mistake and has multiple consequences including missed opportunities to challenge themselves and others to think more critically. This results in the failure to acknowledge how confronting conflict will benefit others, the team, and the organization.

    Avoiding conflict results in constraints to innovation and creativity. Because the leader takes the path of least resistance, so do the people he or she leads. Furthermore, avoiding conflict often results in the suppression of dissent and constructive critical thinking. It can also easily lead to compliance, obedience, and false compromise. Leadership is challenging people to think critically and creatively to confront conflicts rather than compromising to maintain a status quo. Usually, the potential benefit is overlooked because of the perceived absence of opportunity. However, every conflict presents an opportunity. True leaders engage others in conflict, guiding them to find and understand the truth.


    Excerpted from "The Elephant In The Boardroom"
    by .
    Copyright © 2016 Edgar Papke.
    Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

    Table of Contents

    Introduction 15

    Part I Leaders and Conflict: A Unique Relationship, An Intimate Bond 23

    Chapter 1 What We Expect of Great Leaders 25

    Chapter 2 Living Your Legacy 39

    Chapter 3 Embracing Conflict, Seizing Opportunity 47

    Chapter 4 Spotting Elephants 55

    Chapter 5 Elephants of Many Colors 63

    Chapter 6 Cultures of Innovation 73

    Chapter 7 Loving Elephants 83

    Part II Leading Through Awareness 93

    Chapter 8 Exploring Your Story 95

    Chapter 9 Self-Invention 107

    Chapter 10 The Holy Grail of Leadership 119

    Chapter 11 The Lure of Avoidance 129

    Chapter 12 Aiming to Win 141

    Chapter 13 The Consciousness to Choose 151

    Part III Leading With Intention 159

    Chapter 14 The Invitation 161

    Chapter 15 Creating Shared Understanding 171

    Chapter 16 Fearless Exploration 179

    Chapter 17 Creating Tested Commitments 195

    Going Forward: Challenging the Leadership Crisis 207

    Notes 213

    Index 217

    About the Author 223

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