Inevitably, leaders will encounter times when they will need to take a stand in the midst of crisis and polarization. At those times, common temptations are: (1) make people feel better, (2) try to reason with unreasonable people, (3) win an argument, (4) reach consensus, (5) ignore that there’s a problem, (6) hide, and (7) find a solution that will either make everyone happy, or, find a solution to make the critics happy. None of those will work.
Sometimes, leaders have to take a stand, and that requires courage. Like many leadership competencies, however, taking a stand is as much a skill as an attitude. It requires clarity of conviction, self-control, self-definition, and staying in touch with all parties involved. Here are things to consider when taking a stand:
- Self define. When defining one’s position the leader should offer no blame, no categorization, no personal attack, and should not question people’s motives. The best response is a simple “I don’t agree with that point of view.”
- Show a better way. When people are reactive and polarized it is difficult for them to find moderate perspectives or “a middle way.” Leaders will be subject to demands, ultimatums, and “either-or” thinking. Self-regulation will help the leader offer legitimate alternatives and avoid hostage-taking situations.
- Offer they don’t have to agree with you. Reactive responses to crises are characterized by demands to affirm only one perspective (typically from those who feel victimized or disenfranchised). To the extent the leader is able to make room for multiple perspectives is the degree to which they can avoid polarization.
- Don’t take responsibility for other’s feelings. People may choose to take offense at a leader’s position or actions, but that is their choice (for some leaders there is no quicker way to be taken hostage than to hear someone claim, “I have been offended”). However , leaders must choose principles over feelings. Further, leaders do not have the luxury of giving in to their own feelings; the moment they do, they cease being the leader.
- Practice persistence of vision. Some complex issues will never be resolved. Leaders will face a perpetual cycle of the same issue coming up over and again—be they real or imagined. “Wicked” issues (Rittel and Webber, 1973) are not only complex, they necessitate understanding; a mutually agreed perspective on the problem (which likely will never be realized), before a solution can be reached.
- Expect sabotage. Taking a stand will not resolve complex issues, in fact, they likely will call out increased reactivity, and that reactivity can often manifest in sabotage. Expect it, and expect to be surprised by the form it takes. Leaders may choose to respond to reactivity, depending on its nature and severity. But a leader cannot avoid addressing sabotage. When you take a stand, expect that you’ll “make things worse before they get better.”
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.