Conflict Resolution|Mediation

Leadership, Conflict and Problem-Solving

The New York Times’ November 18, 2010 edition featured a letter by Carl Schiffman of Queens, NY, that brought out concerns that many of us in the problem-solving profession have entertained, concerning the limitations of the mediator’s role.  He wrote:

Mr. Obama’s campaign vow to rise above partisanship was much more than mere talk; he seeks to rise above all conflict and become the person who reconciles the divided parties: the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Pakistanis and the Indians, as well as the Democrats and the Republicans closer to home.

It is my serious concern that the president, far from being either aloof or humble, has all along thought of himself not as a political leader struggling to make his point of view prevail, but as a man of peace, with an almost divine mission.

This 75-year old liberal finds the possibilty that President Obama may not be in office after the next election surprisingly painless.  I find it entirely just that when a man is too good to fight, he should lose.

Mr. Schiffman challenges some of the core assumptions of problem-solvers.  Do we consider ourselves “too good to fight”?  Do we cast ourselves as “peacemakers,” as instrumentalities of the divine, while leaving to other, lesser mortals the task of advocating for justice?  Do we deserve to “lose”?  Can a public leader be a problem-solver while still leading?

As a threshold matter, there are many aspects of public leadership that are plainly inconsistent with the task of a mediator.  A political leader advocates policy and seeks public support for it; a mediator (in theory) has no view as to the outcome of a dispute.  Having been entrusted with power, a political leader advances policy in the face of opposition from other political factions; a mediator (in theory) treats disputing parties even-handedly and without regard to her own interests.  A political leader is empowered to advance certain articulated goals; a mediator (in theory) seeks only to help the disputants identify a mutually beneficial outcome to a conflict so they can return to more socially productive endeavors.

Yet do these distinctions compel the conclusion that leadership necessitates belligerance?  The joke goes that legislation, like hot dogs, is something whose ingredients you don’t want to know.  This suggests that lots of opposing views have to be accommodated in creating public policy, and that listening to other people’s interests is a critical skill for a political leader. 

But when Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was he practicing mediation, or coercion?

More to the point, does a mediator really think he is put on the earth to persuade the lion to lie down with the lamb?  I have heard mediators wax eloquent and even weep when describing their own line of work.  Gimme a break.  Since when does helping resolve a landlord/tenant dispute get glorified into being the servant of the Lord?  Talk about doing the work of the Lord, the carpenters who put in the jaw-dropping, beautiful natural wood cabinets in our new kitchen created something far closer to the Peaceable Kingdom than anything I have had the opportunity to achieve for many months.

Like anything worth thinking about, the issue doesn’t lend itself to right-or-wrong, win-or-lose conclusions.  It is refreshing to have a leader who thinks in public.  It is not refreshing to be led by someone so ineffective that he encounters difficulty passing legislation even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress.  The test of a mediator, they say, is a mutual level of dissatisfaction among the settling disputants.  The test of a leader, surely, is effecting change.

At least two helpful (if perhaps unwelcome) truths seem to arise from Mr. Schiffman’s letter.  One is that power achieves its highest social utility when it is exercized.  The other is that you can’t really mediate a problem that you want to come out a certain way.

Mr. Schiffman also implies a third truth, for mediators: Get over yourself.

2 Comments
  1. Whether President Obama decides to become more of a fighter in the next two years, or whether he maintains his mediator-like persona, the fact is that with a Republican House of Representatives, and a stalemated Senate, he is going to find that he will still get very little major legislation passed. And the ironic part is that that is going to make people like Carl Schiffman much happier. What has been making the liberals unhappy the last couple of years is the number of compromises that were made to get major legislation passed. A lot of them would rather fight the good fight and lose, than get a watered-down version of their dreams passed.

    Obama will be re-elected in a landslide. You heard it here first.

  2. When a thoughtful, sincere, hard-working person fails to connect the benefits of what they do to the beneficiaries they are going to struggle to be given additional resources and support. I see this endlessly in corporate settings where “ADR” professionals of all stripes, but especially Ombuds practitioners FAIL to connect what they do with the value it creates and convey that in a meaningful way to organizational leadership and rank and file. I feel this has been the bigger rate limiting factor for the president than his approach to issues. The fact that he is attempting a different model than pure win/lose approaches may also be far more than an academic intentionality for Mr. Obama. My guess (for I have no personal experience in this) is that as a minority working to advance through academic, political and social institutions, he recognized his best chance for “success” came from collaborative models rather than competitive approaches. As such, he may be too deeply steeped in such behavior to pivot, regardless of what would be best at the moment.

    My advice to the president, and ADR practitioners, is to assure that those who fund you, create your authorizing environment, and have the ability to help you do more, more efficiently KNOW what you do for them and can easily put it in a comparative structure to others. The democrats and the president failed at this over the last year. Thus the 11/2 results. But had they done a better job making the benefits and value clear, I think they would have had a dramatically different result. So to for ADR practitioners.

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