In the well-known story about the three bricklayers, working side by side, each is asked what he is doing. The first replies, “I am laying bricks.” The second says, “I am constructing a wall.” But the third answers, “I am building a cathedral.” To lead through conflict, we face the challenge of holding a vision of the cathedral, a vision of what is possible. Our challenge is to see the seed or opportunity buried in the soil of conflict. Of course, sometimes the conflict is so entrenched and bitter that we feel helpless. Overwhelmed by grief, sorrow, or rage, we wonder if there will ever be any progress at all. But even in the most tragic circumstances, the seed of opportunity often lies just beneath the surface.
The key to finding these buried opportunities is imagination, the capacity to envision the conflict transformed. Instead of thinking, “Why won’t they … ?” it requires asking, “What if we … ?” For example:
- What if we raised a generation so that they learned to be “conflict literate?”
- What if we students in business, management, law, and even medicine learned how to turn conflict from a liability into an asset?
- What if all of us at diverse faith-based schools taught about other systems of belief?
- What if we created in every community a public space designed for dialogue?
- What if we developed news media that were a laboratory for negotiation and dialogue?
- What if those of us in education learned and applied the tools of the Mediator?
- What if we voters supported political candidates who ran campaigns that strengthened communities rather than dividing them to get the most votes?
- What if we encouraged the U.S. Congress and other national legislatures to have an Office of Facilitation?
- What if we provided every serious conflict, particularly civil wars, with a mediation team with access to coaching and tools?
- What if we reformed the UN so that it had not only a Security Council but an Inquiry Council?
- What if we challenged defenders of the environment and defenders of economic growth to work together for a sustainable, equitable human future?
Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities