Is the Conflict Specialist a Leader?

Revisiting the Role of the Conflict Specialist from a Leadership Perspective

Ran Kuttner, Ph.D.[*]

Parallel to the emergence of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) as a field, in the last few decades there is a growing body of literature on “Leadership” as a separate field with a set of skills and traits that can be taught. This is not the only resemblance to the ADR field; themes advanced in leadership literature and trainings have a lot in common with those advanced in ADR:

  1. The shift away from hierarchical structures
  2. Globalization and the understanding of human interconnectedness,
  3. Giving priority to communication and collaboration rather than placing the individual who pursues to advance his own understanding of the preferred outcomes.
  4. The importance of collaborative problem-solving, the ability to suspend judgment and appreciate diverse views, the constructive role of conflict, teambuilding, consensus-building, etc.
  5. The understanding of the leader and the conflict specialist as supporters, setting the conditions for others to thrive.

Leaders are encouraged to implement skills that are in many cases akin to those advanced by conflict specialists. Much has been written in the ADR literature on the intersection of management skills and conflict resolutions skills, exploring how the ideas and tools taught and implemented by the conflict specialist can assist managers in their work. Many ADR centers offer services related to organizational leadership and trainings aimed at equipping leaders with skills cultivated by mediators, facilitators and collaborative negotiations.

Indeed, it is important to show how leaders can perform better if trained or coached by conflict specialists; however, this article aims at suggesting that the similarities and parallels between the two fields can challenge our perception of our role as conflict specialists. If we take into account that by training ourselves to improve conflict management skills we also improve our leadership skills, we can help develop a mindset and skills of leaders, even if we are not meeting the more traditional concept of leadership. The same is true also with regard to our training of others who are not performing an official leadership role. This reflection may thus offer new insights into one’s professional identity and role when functioning as a mediator or facilitator, when working with organizations, and when training or coaching others in facilitation, mediation and negotiation skills.

The more traditional concepts of leadership equate leadership with a position of authority, expected to define purpose for others and to control others in order to get the work done. Current themes in leadership scholarship question this view of leadership, offering instead an emphasis of the leader as performing a role of supporting stakeholders and subordinates (rather than performing from a position of authority), setting the terms for them to thrive and be most effective through collaboration, relationship building, constructive management of diversity and conflicts, and active participation in joint decision-making and vision-creating processes. These skills and mindset are cultivated in mediation and facilitation trainings, which makes the conflict specialist a skillful leader in many respects. It is therefore not a surprise that various frameworks offer leadership models that advance “facilitative leadership” (Schwartz) and “mediational leadership” (Gerzon). However, an interesting reflection and challenge for mediators and facilitators is to explore to what extent we act as leaders, considering that what leaders do is so similar to what we do and that the fact we are not in authority position does not exclude us from leadership endeavors.

Bernie Mayer, in his book Beyond Neutrality, challenges our perception of our roles as neutrals and argues that we disempower ourselves in the name of neutrality. He suggests that we should expand our vision of the range of roles we can perform as conflict specialists. In this article I wish to expand this range by suggesting that if we frame our role in terms of leadership, then conflict specialists may find it possible to view their role in more active terms. They might actively seek ways to affect the environment in which they provide services and their clients – in mediation sessions, in coaching and training, and in organizational and social interventions – in manners that can be perceived as leadership. This can also have an effect on our role within the ADR field, asking ourselves – paraphrasing John F. Kennedy’s famous dictum – not what the field can do for me but what I can do for the field, how I can help further develop and expand our field.

In summary, here are some preliminary questions I ask myself with regard to this topic:

  1. When reflecting on our role as conflict specialists, to what extent do we prepare ourselves to take leadership roles (taking into account that we are teaching ourselves and them leadership skills)?
  2. When working with people not in formal leadership positions, to what extent do we prepare them to take leadership roles?
  3. How does the understanding of the similarities between the ADR and the leadership fields challenges our perception of our role as conflict specialists and our actions, considering the challenge to go beyond neutrality and Mayer’s suggestion that we should expand our vision regarding the roles we can perform as conflict specialists?
  4. Should conflict specialists be leaders, and if so in what way?
  5. What additional leadership skills and traits that we do not usually emphasize but are taught in leadership trainings can serve us in our continuous professional development as mediators and facilitators?
  6. Should we incorporate into our trainings and coaching of non-leaders additional leadership skills we do not usually emphasize?
  7. How can leadership scholarship improve our skills and professional development to help us work with people in formal leadership positions?
  8. What are our civic-leadership roles and responsibilities considering that models of civic leadership are very much about facilitation, consensus building and negotiation skills, which are our proficiency?
  9. How do we see our role when mediating a private dispute if we frame our role in leadership terms?
  10. Are there ethical problems with viewing ourselves as both a leader and a conflict specialist?

I look forward to your commnets and further discussion on these ideas.




[*]Assistant Professor at the Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at Creighton University School of Law, Omaha, where among other courses teaches a course on leadership for graduate students in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution. A full journal article on this topic will be published later this year.

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Comment by Matthew J Starman on September 21, 2010 at 10:24pm
When reading your post, I couldn't help think of Transformational Leadership. While in undergrad, I took a few leadership classes that always stressed that importance of transformational leadership. The themes of transformational leadership seemed to be aligned with that of a mediator.

-Individualized Concern for each member, listening to their needs and concerns
-Intellectual Stimulation, asking questions to each party, encouraging independent thinking as well as creative solutions
-Inspirational Motivation, articulating a vision of problem solving, and an optimism that the process will help
-Idealized Influence, being a role model for behavior, and gaining the parties trust.

Obviously these concepts take months to take place, but much smaller versions can be seen in a mediation. In a mediation, there are two (or more) parties with interests in different places, motivations that may differ, and possibly a lack of trust between the parties. The mediator, much like a transformational leader in a dysfunctional organization, must gain the trust of the parties, listen to their needs, ask questions to challenge their thinking, and inspire them to collaborate in some way.

In this way, conflict specialists are already leaders.

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