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:
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:
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.