Leading through Conflict
by Paul Abramson, ACS, CL
If there is no conflict, there is no change.
I am going to let you in on a little secret. The key to leadership is understanding conflict.
Who is the leader in this scenario?
One night, many moons ago, some friends and I decided to go to a movie. We were three grown men in a strange town with nothing to do on a Saturday night. We chose an animated film titled, “The Road to El Dorado”. Anybody who knows me knows I grew up with a passion for animation. This is a big part of what makes me who I am. This is my happy place. And I will defend my toon viewing rights with my life if need be. Problem is I cannot draw.
After downing a few bags of White Castle hamburger sliders, we arrived at the shopping mall where the local cineplex was situated.
“This must be the place,” I speculated. I couldn’t be too sure. The title on the sign was displayed as one word, all caps.
I was told the mall was only a decade old and already there were rumors of the wrecking ball. I wonder why. There sure was plenty of parking. Oh, well. We were anxious to see this film. It got good reviews and was doing well at the box office. Plus, I am a big fan of traditional, hand-drawn animation which is becoming as rare as film itself. And it was produced by a studio which would eventually beat the giant, Disney, to the first Best Animated Feature Oscar. I was looking forward to a cinematic treat.
We three grown, stable men in a strange town with nothing to do on a Saturday night approached the ticket window. I was first in line. There were only two other people behind me and they were with me. “I’ll have one adult for The Road to El Dorado,” I happily told the kid behind the window.
He looked at me as though I was some sort of fugitive from a mental institution. “Uh, it’s a cartoon,” he said with astonishment.
“I know it’s a bleeping cartoon,” I replied with a sense of frustration in my voice, although I don’t recall actually using the word, bleeping. I may have used another word. Mr. Clearasil took my money, got up and walked away leaving me empty handed.
“What’s going on?” my friends and I pondered as we waited and waited. Perhaps we violated some secret code of conduct. Could it be adults are not allowed to see animated movies without being accompanied by children? The trailers were about to begin and I didn’t even have my Diet Coke. How do you enjoy a movie and clear your palate of the after effects of White Castle without a Diet Coke? It can not be done. Where did the booger go with my money and my ticket?
Finally, the poster child for Acne Anonymous returned with the manager. “Is there a problem?” the manager queried.
“The problem,” I told Gildersleeve, “was junior took my money, questioned my choice of filmed entertainment and walked away without giving me my purchase.”
What was the conflict in this little story? Did I pose a threat? Did I step out of line by getting upset? I paid for a ticket which I did not receive. I wanted to see that particular movie and took the necessary steps to do so. Of course I was displeased.
The manager understood the conflict. A monetary exchange was made but the merchandise was not delivered, upsetting the customer. He resolved the issue, gave me my ticket and my friends and I were allowed in. I’m surprised we weren’t offered senior discounts. After all, we were in our mid-thirties.
Although the quality of the animation was equivalent to Disney, the movie was forgettable.
Conflict – to clash or disagree. From Latin conflictus. Con meaning with and fligere meaning to strike. Conflict can also mean interference. For example, if a Toastmaster spring conference where you were a contestant was on the same day as your son’s bar mitzvah, you might have a conflict in your schedule. If you are a leader, you would consider what would happen if you choose the Toastmaster conference. You will have an unhappy son, an angry spouse and in-laws who will never speak to you again. There’s a 50/50 chance you might not even make it to the World Championship. Your best bet is the bar mitzvah where there is a 100 per cent chance you won’t make it to the World Championship but you will save your marriage.
The theory of conflict is the same as the theory of action/reaction. For every action there is an equal if not greater reaction. This is what they teach you in screenwriting 101. One antagonist. One protagonist. The antagonist is the one who sets the story in motion. The protagonist is the one who reacts to the action. Think of dominoes where one knocks the other and so on and so on. Something causes something to happen. You become the antagonist when you knock the first domino. You create the conflict. You also plan a desired outcome and set the dominoes accordingly.
If there is no conflict, there is no change. There is neither destruction nor growth. If you are a screenwriter, there is no story. If you are a speaker, there is no message. You have to decide what your message is and organize your speech in a logical manner before your audience can clearly understand what it is you intend to say. A true leader understands conflict, physical or emotional, and makes necessary preparations and decisions. If you are faced with a battle you know you will not win, do you fight? Ask yourself, “What will be the outcome? What will happen if I do this?” Know the answers to these questions and you will know whether or not you are prepared to face the challenge.
If the goal is to have all of the dominoes fall, what are the first steps to make that happen. Plan the proper order. Gather the right pieces and place them in that proper order. Motivate the first domino and set it in action. The rest will fall into place.
This is how your Toastmasters manuals are organized. The first step, your Ice Breaker speech, sets the journey in motion. As you progress through your manual, you progress toward you goal – completing that manual. With each domino you knock, you become a better speaker. With each manual you complete, you become a better leader. Eventually, you will become a Distinguished Toastmaster. Eventually, you will become a professional speaker.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If you think all you have to do to become a leader is to present speeches, you’ve got another think coming to you. Each goal has to be analyzed one step at a time. Each piece has to be placed in the right order. Baby steps lead to adult leaps.
My goal was to view my favorite type of movie. What did I have to do in order to accomplish that goal? I had to find out where it was playing, go there and purchase a ticket. That was the plan. That is what I intended to do. In order to purchase the ticket, I had to approach the ticket window and give the cashier an appropriate amount of money. Unfortunately, I encountered an obstacle. One of my dominoes was out of order. The cashier made an unfavorable remark about my choice – the action. I became upset – the reaction. I became upset – the action. The cashier went away without giving me my ticket – the reaction. The cashier did not give me my ticket – the action. I became even more upset – the reaction.
Let’s take a look at who was the leader in this situation. What was the manager’s goal? It was to run a successful business. In this case, a movie theater. In order to do this, he needed to sell a certain amount of tickets. In order to do this, he needed to book movies that customers wanted to see. That is exactly what he did. Is that all he had to do? No. He had to maintain a pleasant environment. He had to make sure the customers were happy. What would happen if he failed to do that and one of his dominoes fell out of place? Customers would not return. Would his business be a success? No. Was the manager a leader? Yes. He understood the situation. A customer who purchased a ticket was upset because he did not receive said ticket. What was the correct action to reset the dominoes and to make the business a success? The answer was give the customer the bleeping ticket he purchased – the action. The customer was happy – reaction.
If you want something to happen, you have to do what it takes to make it happen.
When you are faced with a conflict, do you know what to do?
- Evaluate the situation – what is happening, what has happened, and what will happen.
- Determine what should be done and what should not be done.
- Fill your team with people who know how to do what you want to have done.
There is an old saying that goes, “Everybody wants to go to heaven. Nobody wants to die.” This means to reap the reward you must do the work.
Plot the route and walk. You will get there. No matter how many dominoes you knock over, there is only one at the end and it is precious.
The movie may have been forgettable, but it was still worthy of a place in my massive video library. This was back in the good old days when VHS tapes were the “in” thing. The distributor packaged it in a bulky library case similar to Disney. I made the mistake of commenting about this to the young girl who worked at the cash register.
“Oh, Disney always does this,” said the kid who had not seen the film.
“But this isn’t a Disney movie,” I replied.
She was surprised that anybody other than Disney would make an animated feature. If it looks like Disney, it’s Disney. In her mind that was a reasonable assumption. Here I was, somebody who grew up analyzing cartoons in 8mm one frame at a time on a movie editor and who was on a first-name basis with the voices of Rocky and Bullwinkle, having a debate with a kid on what is and isn’t a Disney movie. I knew I wasn’t going to win that battle. I guess I’m getting too old for this.