And the king said, "You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father's house!" Then the king said to the guards who stood about him, "Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because their hand also is with David, and because they knew when he fled and did not tell it to me." 1 Samuel 22:13-19
Conflict is a fact of leadership. It is inevitable. And never is a leader’s ability to lead more on trial than when confronted with conflict. It reveals a leader’s steel. Either it will demonstrate his credibility or expose his inability. Most people are impressed by the size of a leader’s organization; but in truth, it is conflict that brings out the best or the worst, and reveals a leader’s capacity to lead.
In essence, Saul was an abysmal failure at managing conflict. In fact, his leadership style and lust for power was the catalyst for conflict. Ironically, that which drove him to bolster his role as king ultimately led to his downfall and the eventual defeat of his regime. Such will be the outcome of any leader who fails to manage conflict and restore unity. Jesus said it like this: "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25).
“I hate confrontation,” is the phrase we often hear from leaders but, unfortunately, conflict and confrontation cannot be avoided. If you are going to lead, you will encounter conflict. In fact, if you are not encountering conflict, you are probably not leading; more likely, you are just maintaining status quo. The question, therefore, for leaders, is not “how will you handle conflict ‘if’ it comes?” The question is “how will you handle conflict ‘when’ it comes?”
MANAGING CONFLICT REQUIRES A HEALTHY LEADER
If conflict can be resolved, it requires a healthy, sensitive, selfless leader: one who can set aside his own fears, insecurities and pride, and focus first on the needs and concerns of the people and the organization. This was the issue driving Israel’s dilemma. That conflict was driven by one thing: an arrogant, headstrong, insensitive leader. Saul only cared about his perspective, his concerns, his needs, and his position. And it was this reckless abuse of authority that plummeted the nation into years of turmoil and decline.
Such is the case in many situations today. Often, it is an inept, insecure leader who cares only about “being right” and “looking good” that is fuelling conflict in an organization. Even conflicts not initiated by a leader can be exacerbated by him because of his own ego issues and fears of “losing face.”
TOXIC LEADERS CREATE CONFLICT
Every organization has within its ranks people who are volatile, contentious, and insubordinate. Every church contains people with attitudes and inclinations that have the potential to erupt into divisive, destructive forces. It is the disposition of the pastor that ultimately decides whether or not those rebellious spirits will rise to find a voice. His ability (or lack of ability) to relate to people, communicate effectively, and lead proactively determines if the culture of the church will promote dissention or encourage unity.
Plainly stated, leaders must set the tone for unity in the church by his or her own example. Sadly, some leaders have the kind of disposition and personality that seems to generate conflict and draw the worst out of people. They are contentious spirits or “toxic leaders.” Proverbs 26:21 says, “As charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife.” In 1 Timothy 6:4, Paul warns of those who are… “Obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling (and) evil suspicions.” And, Proverbs 6:19 talks of he who “…sows discord among brethren.” There are some people who seem to be magnets for conflict. Like an influenza patient spreading sickness wherever he goes, these people spread their disease as well. Wherever they go, there is an outbreak of conflict.
So what does a “Toxic Leader” look like? How can you tell if you are a leader with a contentious spirit?
First, a “Toxic Leader’s” opinions are offensively absolute. He uses tones and makes statements that seem to suggest his way is the only way and anyone who disagrees is intellectually inferior. And if his idea is not accepted, he withholds his support from any other initiative and may even attempt to undermine it. On the contrary, healthy pastors who promote unity are willing to consider other opinions. They can receive criticism without becoming defensive and even support programs or initiatives that they may not be personally enthusiastic about but will participate in for the sake of supporting the people involved.
Second, a “Toxic Leader” sees only his own perspective. Because his opinions are absolute—or “from God,” there is no reason to try and understand any other person’s perspective. They wrongly think: “These usurpers just need to submit.” When others try to explain another perspective, they interrupt and talk over them; they don’t even listen because they’re only concerned about what they’re going to say next. Healthy leaders however are skillful listeners. Romans 12:10 says “in honor (they) give preference to one another.” They know that to build unity people must feel respected and valued; these leaders convey a sense of appreciation for the unique insights and perspectives that everyone brings to the table.
Third, the “Toxic Leader” uses a tone that is abrasive. His statements are often marked by harsh, inflammatory words and condemning tones. It is not what he says, but how he says it. Statements are made that are provocative—even offensive. If they disagree with someone (which is typical) their body language shouts rejection. They recoil and shake their head “disapprovingly.” They roll their eyes, and cross their arms. Everything about them says, “No way!” Of course, it is not wrong to disagree, but skillful leaders—uniting leaders—are able to disagree without being disagreeable or communicating rejection. Unifying leaders value inclusion. They convey a sense of welcome and respect to everyone even if their ideas are dissimilar.
Fourth, the “Toxic Leader” would rather be "right" than save a relationship. To this leader, winning an argument is more important than winning a soul (see Proverbs 11:30). Because he values his authority more than people and success as his greatest goal, those who disagree are seen as obstacles to overcome, rather than valued souls to “win over.” But the wise leader knows how to “win souls.” He knows when compromise is necessary; he understands that losing an argument can sometimes be a strategic step in winning a brother and, thereby, ultimately winning the war.
Fifth, “Toxic Leaders” are quick to criticize, correct and rebuke, but slow to encourage. In fact, rarely does a “Toxic Leader” offer any hint of encouragement. They see people as things to use to accomplish a goal. They are out of touch with what people feel and need. They care only that people do what they are told to do, the way they are told to do it; and if you do it wrong, beware the wrath of the contentious spirit. But good leaders are full of encouragement for those around them. In fact, when they offer correction, they are able to do so in a way that affirms people and inspires them to “want” to do better. They are not patronizing; they genuinely care about what people feel and need and believe their role as a leader is to help meet those needs.
Leaders who are humble and compassionate, leaders who convey a sense of worth and value to their followers, leaders who build a culture of inclusion where everyone matters and disagreement is met with respect are building a “Conflict Resistant Culture.” Theirs will be an environment where mutual respect, acceptance, and seeking to understand one another will preclude the possibility of hostile disagreement. Just as a block of ice cannot remain long in a tropical environment, the frigid rigidity of conflict will melt under the warm spirit of compassion and genuine love.
A FINAL WORD
Conflict is a fact of leadership, but division does not have to be. It is the character and disposition of the leader that ultimately decides how conflict will spread or be resolved. Unfortunately, Saul was of such little character that he not only failed to resolve conflict, he perpetuated it. Effective leadership is by nature to manage and resolve conflict. Let us seek to rise above our own egos and need to be right and put the greater good of the organization first. Become a peacemaker and see how God will bless.