Dr. Conflict | Spring 2011

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Dear Dr. Conflict:

The nonprofit I helped found has experienced quite a bit of growth over the last few years and our opportunities abound. This is a good thing, right? But as we have developed, the breadth of the work has expanded and the leadership role has been divided in two – as is common in our field of work – into a kind of artistic director and a business director.

I am taking the role of artistic director and another younger staff person has the other role with my support. She is the kind of brave soul who will wade into the stormiest water with a sense of purpose but she has never been in positional leadership and some of her judgment needs coaching at times. Not a serious issue but it’s there. I am very willing to help her make that transition.

So what’s the rub?

She and I do fight. We always have for the 10 years she and I have both been here. These are generally quick flare ups that blow over with apologies all around but there is always a period during which we are both fuming and hurt. The thing is, before now, I was always able to pull rank to say this is the way something needs to go. But I cannot do that anymore, so I have lost my grace period.

We have had a few interactions this past week where things needed to be done quickly and we were right in the situation disagreeing with each other in front of others about how something needed to be handled.

In private I yelled at her “I’m done – you just be little miss executive director!” (or so she tells me. I remember nothing) and she accused me of disallowing her opinion and said she was done too and did not need to take my s***.

The thing is, I was once, a long time ago, a co-director and I know how hard it is. Now I am older and feel exhausted even by the thought of more conflict but I know that I am probably likely to have lots of it here.

What’s a baby-boomer who recognizes her own mortality to do? 

Miss Founder – Artistic Director


Dear Dr. Conflict,

I’ve recently had the amazing opportunity to co-lead an organization I’ve been part of for ten years with the founder. Age has never been an issue with us and we have worked very well together over the years, which is one of the main reasons this co-leadership model has arisen. (My position now directly reports to the board). Sure, we’ve had our fights, but we’ve always been able to move on.

But being a founder and some years older than me, you can imagine this is dangerous territory and I’m afraid in my zeal to get started that I have stepped on some toes. This week for example, we had several meetings with stakeholders and we began to cover topic areas that my co-leader and I had not previously discussed. We had a disagreement about how to approach some work, which we realized only when we got into the discussion.

Not knowing what to do and not reading my co-leader’s clues to table the discussion until she and I had a chance to talk, I continued to make my point. Only when I was done did I realize I had offended my co-leader. I realized the extent of my co-leaders unhappiness after a rather blustery verbal fight the following day which ended in tears.

My question is, given the complex relationship and history and given the challenge of co-leadership, what is the right way to handle this and the many other potentially contentious decisions we have before us if this co-leadership model is to work?

Little Miss – Business Director

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Dear Directors,

Dr. Conflict almost addressed you as equals, but when he read the letters side-by-side, he could see that there is some confusion in this regard. Notice that the Miss Founder describes your relationship as “kind of an artistic director and a business director” whereas Little Miss calls it a “co-leadership model” where each of you is a direct report to the board. Miss Founder says that the “younger staff person has the other role with my support” and “needs coaching”; the business director calls herself a co-leader and refers to her counterpart as a founder and with obvious respect bordering on reverence.

To be fair, the co-leadership model is the structural choice at many regional theatres and dance companies, but it is no walk in the park. And Dr. Conflict knows this from personal experience – he served as executive director at the Louisville Ballet for seven years in partnership with the artistic director.

In order to answer your question of how to make the relationship work, Dr. Conflict reminds you that for any organization to achieve results, two things must happen from the get go. First, the work must be clearly divided into definable tasks. Second, the work must be coordinated.1

When regard to clear delegation – the division of labor as it were – you two seem pretty darn confused. Is this co-leadership, as Little Miss refers to seven times in her letter, or is it the “other role with my support,” that Miss Founder talks about?

If you’re going to use a co-leadership approach, start by clarifying the domains that are within your respective purviews, divide the labor, sharpen the duties. Typically you’d see Little Miss covering administration, marketing, and development. Miss Founder would be responsible for the programming. Being clear about duties is the number one easiest way to improve any agency’s effectiveness.2  So be clear about it.

Finally, make sure that your titles reflect a true arts co-leadership model: Miss Founder is called artistic director and Little Miss is either the managing director or executive director if she’s particularly seasoned or the agency is larger in scale. Business director is a lower-level title that is subordinate to the artistic director in stature.

Having divided your labor clearly, you’re ready to deal with the matter of coordinating your work. The way to do this is to sit down together and reach an understanding of the rules of engagement, your code of conduct, the guidelines of behavior. Is it okay to have silent clues followed by verbal brawling? How do you want to deal with dissent? How do you want to resolve conflict?

Dr. Conflict does not mean to suggest that what you’re doing now is inappropriate. You are both pretty doggone good at managing conflict in his humble opinion; you’re getting things out on the table, working through it, and you’ve even contacted Dr. Conflict for advice. You two have game, no doubt about it. If you’re looking for Dr. Conflict to wag his finger at you, he won’t. Better that you’re mixing it up than bottling it in.

Here’s why: co-workers almost always have clear supervisors – call them what you will, be it coaches or bosses – who can mediate intractable disputes. You have a board; herd of cats is the oft-used metaphor, but Dr. Conflict prefers herd of turtles. Granted, you may have a wonderful board chair or someone else who can help out, but you work for the board in general. And herds of turtles slow moving to put it mildly. Moreover, if there’s one thing Dr. Conflict has learned the hard way: your board, its members, and stakeholders do not want to mediate your conflicts any more than in-laws want to do the same for married couples. If you want therapy, see a therapist.

Many of the readers may have been hoping that Dr. Conflict was going to take Miss Founder to the woodshed for simply being a founder who is having some challenges letting go. But those of you hoping for this are going to disappointed. Dr. Conflict likes the progress that Miss Founder is making and he respects the care that Little Miss is taking in the process. These are two really thoughtful people who want the best for the organization and each other. And they seem to be succeeding, but perhaps being a bit too hard on themselves for the inevitable clashes of their complementary and not identical personalities.

If you don’t want conflict, crush it with power or drink a lot of Jack Daniels. But if you want to engage the strengths of co-leaders, co-workers, board members and volunteers, each of whom bring different skills and personalities to the party, conflict is a given. Without it, you will clearly be in trouble or working with a bunch of flatterers.

Got success? Get conflict.

1.  Dr. Conflict’s thinking on this topic is informed by Henry Mintzberg who writes, “Every organized human activity – from the making of pots to the placing of a man on the moon – gives rise to [these] two fundamental and requirements.” (Mintzberg, H. (1983). Structure in fives: Designing effective organizations. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall., p. 2)

2. This observation comes from a study Dr. Conflict conducted that found unclear duties to be the single most powerful explanation for poorly performing governance. (Light, M. (2010). Results now for nonprofits: Purpose, strategy, operations, and governance. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.)

Copyright 2011. All rights reserved by the Nonprofit Information Networking Association, Boston, MA. Volume 18, Issue 1. Subscribe | buy issue | reprints.