Conflict-fit Managers

A conflict-fit manager is one who is ready to accept and embrace conflict as an opportunity for development and growth. What are the qualities of a conflict-fit manager?


Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to self-motivate, to control impulses, to be persistence, to demonstrate zeal, to show empathy and to social deftness.(Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury, 1996) Emotional intelligence allows the manager to be present in any discussion about the conflict or with the parties involved in the conflict.  


Self-awareness. Conflict-fit managers understand how conflict affects their behaviour and their response to the behaviour of adversaries. They are aware of the triggers, often with deeply sub-conscious origins, that determine their responses to conflict. Being aware of these triggers allow for a more measured and controlled response in situations of conflict.

Communication skills. Communication is attending to someone with empathy and connecting to people. The skill to listen with attention is probably the most import communication skill of a conflict-fit manager. While there is value in acknowledging the speaker and note down an important point, but an attentive listener listens without judgement. Attentive listening develops the ability to ask impactful questions and to respond with clarity.

Lateral thinking. Many of us shy away from difficult conversations until we can no longer avoid them. Conflict-fit managers face difficult conversations looking to design new outcomes, rather than choosing conventional solutions. Design, according to De Bono, (Edward de Bono, Conflicts, Vermilion, 2018-edition) has two attributes – a sense of purpose and a sense of fit. Persons, experience and ideas are brought together to shape a response that is relevant and practical.

These attributes can be nurtured, which means that every manager can be a conflict-fit manager.



[This article first appear in the PMR Africa of August 2019]

Why conflict became my thing!

Conflict is part of our lives. Edward de Bono says somewhere that in our modern society conflict is required of us. Dealing with conflict is not an option, neither is the tendency to argue us out of conflict. Can conflict be an opportunity to increase purpose, growth, conversation and connectedness in the workplace?

Over the years I have been involved in impactful conflicts – from my first fist fights with my friends Karel, the other Johan, and my cousin Maurice (I am not sure that we did throw a few punches) to some major conflicts in my work environment.

Throughout my career I have been accused of avoiding conflict because I believed reconciliation was the desired way. In the past year I had to do a lot of re-thinking about my choices – and my contribution to these conflicts. In the process I discovered people do not avoid conflict for the sake of avoiding. Often there are deep seated, often subconscious forces, that lead to avoidance and accommodation, or prevent collaboration.

One discovery I made was that rather than avoid, I accommodate others’ needs to deal with conflict rather than avoiding conflict. I went through all the training in different models, received the advice of well-meaning colleagues and consultants. It helped but did not change my response to conflict fundamentally until I discovered that when I avoid conflict it is often not avoiding the inter-personal conflict, but rather avoiding the conflict inside myself.

That is where my passion to help people to deal with conflict by literally mining the conflict, go deep and uncover the real motivation to avoid or compete or accommodate, uncover the motivation to settle for compromise instead of doing the hard work to collaborate. Conflict is expressed in behaviour. Behaviour changes when we develop a new consciousness of how we live, when we begin to understand how our behavior is influenced by our subconscious motivation and commitments.

Conflict teaches me much about purpose (see note), helps me grow, opens new doors for conversation and challenges me to connect with a diverse group of people. That is why conflict is now my thing!

Note: I also discovered that making this shift to “coaching conflict” makes both strategic and spiritual sense. All business people know that differentiating yourself from the competition is of strategic importance. At the same time “coaching conflict” is an expansion of the calling to ministry which I held since my childhood.


Source: Edward de Bono, Conflicts. Vermillion, London, 1991

Worthwhile citizens

In my previous blog, I wrote:“A vision is contextualised purpose.” Let me try and explain this with the case of a head of school recently (I do this with the person’s consent). She has more than 25 year’s experience of which the last five year as head of school. From middle 2018 she began to ask questions about her vision for the school as circumstances in the country, the educational environment and the specific school community changed. I do not have space to elaborate on these far-reaching changes in this blog.

We began to talk about her life’s purpose. While she does not want to build the school’s vision on her life’s purpose is, she want them aligned. In that way, she can believe in the direction of the school. The first part of her journey was an exploration of purpose and values, beginning with purpose. When asked, she formulated her purpose as “wanting to leave an enduring contribution to the betterment of society.” It was still vague and very general as life-purposes often are. As we continue exploring the themes, she began to appropriate that purpose to the school context. She came up with an inspiring concept of educating children to become worthwhile citizens for a worthwhile community.* We began to explore that with questions such as: what would it look like if a student (Thebogo was a fictitious student we used) is a worthwhile citizen?

What would a school producing people such as Thebogo look like? How would she know that the school she leads is successful in producing adults (alumni) such as Tebogo? It became clear to us that she values community involvement and leadership (or initiators), volunteer service, professional accomplishments, supportive (family) relationships, honesty and integrity as important characteristics of worthwhile citizens.

We then turned to questions about the context. What changes are happening in the school environment? How does it make the school different from previous years? What cause the changes? Are there systemic factors that she cannot control, and how do these contribute to the changes? What can she control and what must she accept as part of the reality of being an educator in South Africa 2019? It soon becomes clear what was important to her. She focussed on prominent contextual factors that related to the personal life of individual members of the community, such as family structures (and the breaking down of these structures), violence and opportunity to contribute to society. These factors fundamentaly impact on children’s ability to develop and learn, and become “worthwhile citizens” of society.

We can now begin to envision what a school producing worthwhile citizens in a context of limited opportunity, family violence and structural break down looks like for Tebogo. From this she can now lead her staff, all of which has an own sense of purpose and contextual insight, towards a new relevant vision for the school.

* She acknowledge that the concept “worthwhile citizens” is from a quoteby an anonymous author. 

Vision is contextualised purpose.

In my previous blog, I wrote:“A vision is not a goal or an objective. It explains the context and inspires action.” Last week, during a meeting, I wrote on my notes: Vision is “contextualised purpose.”

Vision begins with a fundamental human question, that of purpose or meaning. I was recently introduced to Jack Canfield’s 10-step process of discerning our life purpose. The steps dealt with love, enjoyment, intuition, idealism, and fulfilment. But there was also space to consider financial realities, good and bad relationships, health, boundaries and struggles. The point is this: purpose has context, and that context includes more than a social and economic analysis, it also includes intuition, creativity and experience.

Vision is contextualised purpose. My life’s mission is to journey with people in “developing a new imagination for our future.” This idea does not come from somewhere. It comes from a heart that sees much suffering and despair. It comes from a mind that seeks to understand a specific history and the communities that experience that history. It comes from a belief that rejects the idea that we have to choose between freedom and fairness. This is only part of my context.

Understanding the explanation of context as vision, and not merely as a report or research findings, has one advantage – it allows for values such as creativity, imagination and appreciation to become part of the talk of the team. It allows the team members to work with their intuition, to share stories and experience. Intuition challenges dearly held beliefs to give meaning and insight to the images of intuition.

It seems that the envisioning process goes something like this:

experience -> belief + insight -> envision -> embody -> experience

As much as inequality, fraud, crime, economic hardship, abuse and violence are part of my context, my heart, head and gut are also part of my context. Only when I begin to understand this, vision becomes grounded and inspiring.


Until we reach the tipping point

For me, a vision must be compelling and inspiring. It comes from the heart. Carl Jung said: “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” You do not gather around a table of a flip chart and begin to write a vision. In a group, it is the self-awareness of the leader that will ensure that a vision exists before the team gathers around the table or the flip chart.

Vision is an author. I like the idea of an imagined future. But without imagination, we cannot see an alternative to that which we have. Imagination calls forth creativity, it involves the emotions, it leads to understanding, and it awakens hope – hand, heart, mind and will.

But a vision is also practical. It changes behaviour, influences decisions, and most important, brings people together. In other words, vision determines the mission, the task at hand and empowers those who have the responsibility for the task. A good mission is obtainable, albeit that it requires many hours of hard work in the back office. But a vision is not a goal or an objective. It explains the context and inspires action.


Thus, let us imagine a shared future and built a vision – one person at a time until we reach the tipping point. (see: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, published by ABACUS, 2013).

An inspiring future or stuck in the past?

The change of year provides a moment of reflection and assessment of our lives, careers and relationships.  Not all of us are into making New year’s resolution. I certainly am not!! Most of us are clear about our big goals and targets for the year, such as “I want to expand my business,” or “I want to obtain my MBA.” Still, many of us do have smaller goals that sound like resolutions for the next period (new year?).

The first week in February is probably a good time to assess our progress on these smaller goals. It is also a good time to ask whether this is an important matter to attend to. One way to assess the goal is to ask a question that Debbie Ford (The Right Questions, published by HarperOne, 2004) poses: “Will this choice (resolution or goal) propel me toward an inspiring future or will it keep me stuck in the past?”

This question helped me to understand where the goal comes from. Is it born out of your vision for your life, or out of fear? A resolution born from vision creates awareness and hope. It contributes time and effort to the bigger picture of my life. But, a resolution born from fear prevents us from taking risks, keeps us from believing in the value of our choices.


Thus, “will your choice (resolution) propel you toward an inspiring future or will it keep you stuck in the past?” If the answer is “yes, it will propel me to an inspiring future”, then it is worth to be consciously present in all you do – even if it is a small goal such as becoming a compassionate listener!

Science-fiction and awareness

The past few weeks I reflected on empathy, awareness and imagination – what I call the building blocks of hope and meaning. Last month I wrote about awareness as being present and being prepared. But, being present and prepared for what?


I once attended an exhibition of the space race in Sandton Convention Centre. The organisers dedicated part of the exhibition to the different ways in which Science-fiction influenced the space race. Much of the authors’ “flights of imagination” was rooted in the new technologies of their day. Nevertheless, they suggested solutions to many of real problems humanity faced. They saw alternative ways. Imagination helps us to see alternative possibilities.

The well-known theologian, Walter Breuggemann wrote about prophetic ministry as “to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” To nurture and nourish an alternative to what we know and accept as “how it is”. But what we know and accept is increasingly getting us into trouble. To see beyond these realities requires imagination. Imagination is the ability to see something new, to intuitively conceptualise and courageous pursue that dream.

It is not only prophets (self-declared or divinely appointed) that needs to nourish and nurture imagination. The dominant culture of the day confronts every individual and humanity as a whole – no one can escape this confrontation. The dominant culture controls humans through political, economic, cultural and even religious forces. These forces cause immense suffering and more and more hopelessness for humanity and individuals. We need imagination to resist these forces that destroy humanity, community and nature.



The idea that imagination is an important part of our business and personal world is not new. At one point every entrepreneur, every leader, every artist imagined something that was not yet. Inspired by that idea or image they changed the way they saw the world, the way they valued that which they had and embarked on an adventure to create an alternative.

Awareness: be present, be prepared

Two words that point to new directions in leadership thinking is that of self-awareness and humbleness. What does it mean? The answer is to be present and to be prepared.

I worked with an organisation where the leaders were driven by the desire to be on the leading edge of developments in their field. Any innovation or strategy was quickly adapted and implemented. Change was truly the only certainty in that organisation.

As criticism (and the stress of continuous change) increased, they begin to see any form of criticism or apparent change in market demands as adversity – as a threat to their desire to be on the leading edge. As time went by and the need to change became institutionalised in the organisation. The leaders increasingly reacted from positions of fear. Their biggest fear was not to fail but the fear of being found out as in competent. They lived where fear dictated them to live.

The continuously changes that they made to the programs, systems and procedures within the organisation eventually took its toll. The continuous demands on the staff to adapt to the ideas of the leaders led to uncertainty and chaos as the staff tried to keep up with the stream of change. With time employees and customers lost trust and faith in the leadership team.

The way to respond to changes in the context of an organisation is to create strategies from a position of being present. Being present allows us to both understand and experience the contextual changes. It allows you to imagine the desired outcome and to choose to take responsible actions – dictated by neither fear nor arrogance. From the position of presence, leaders can prepare themselves, their organisation and the people of the organisation to create solutions.


Empathy and awareness together with imagination are the building blocks of hope and meaning.

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Empathy and selflessness

In the previous blog, I wrote that empathy, awareness and imagination – embedded in relationships with helpful others – are the building blocks of hope and meaning. Over the next few weeks, I will write about concepts such as empathy, awareness, imagination and hope.

Empathy is all about understanding the deepest needs of the world, and how it impacts human beings. It requires us to connect with our fellow human beings. Researcher, Brené Brown defines spirituality as the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected by something greater than us, love and compassion. She adds that this connection cannot be severed, but it can be forgotten.

Why do I forget that I am connected to every Syrian refugee, to the Italian family mourning the death of the three year old child in the recent floods, and to the young man on the street corner in Midrand or Oudtshoorn? One possible answer is thinking. Thinking responds to the experience of pain – not their pain but mine. Thinking opens the possibility of finding reasons to distance me from the other.

The confrontation with the need of others is also a confrontation with my own “core woundedness.” I supress my woundedness because I am afraid to face my vulnerability or limits or loneliness, dependence etc. I tell myself that pain is not good, and therefore it is acceptable (and reasonable) to keep my distance, which is to forget the inextricable connection of love and compassion.

Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen talked about “displacement” and “togetherness.” Displacement is the conscious recognition of our woundedness that brings us to deeper solidarity with the pain of others. Togetherness, he writes, can bring me to a place where I can recognise the sameness of all human beings. This recognition is the beginning of empathy. The true character of awareness is not to ignore your own needs and wants but to face your fears and affirm the connection between you and those who long for love.

Sources: Brene Brown’s sermon at the Washington Natiional Cathedral on January 21, 2018, can be viewed at; Core woundedness is a concept used by Svannah Steinberg from Star Leadership in South Africa; The idea of displacement and sameness comes from Nouwen’s book Compassion, published by Darton, Longman and Todd of London. It was co-written with Donald P McNeil and Douglas A Morrison.


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About needs, gifts and imagination

In the previous blog, I wrote about the helpful other. The helpful other is a person who can open our eyes for new possibilities. They can stimulate our creativity to re-imagine our lives, i.e. both the core projects (our work and tasks) and our relationships (with the self and with fellow human beings). These helpful others can help us in three important ways.

First, the helpful other is a source that can assist us to discover and understand the deepest needs of the world. I have friends who opened my eyes for the need of those stigmatised in the crisis of AIDS. Others helped me to see the true realities of poverty, and yet others for the struggle of young men to find a place of value in a fast changing world – to name only three aspects of the need around me.

Second, the helpful others are important in helping me to be more self-aware, less judgemental, and to be present in the here and now. I cannot close my eyes to the need of the world, and I may not withhold my gifts from the needy. The helpful others can and should hold me accountable for the way I respond to the world.

Third, they can help me to understand the changes in the world, and to imagine the future. Increasingly, we realise that this imagined future requires a new way of thinking about the world and the way we live. We can talk about the impact of technological development on being human, the challenges we face with migration, the changes in civilisation (and thus values, anthropology, spirituality etc.) that happens around us. We humans are soft wired to belong and to relate with others, not to fear and abuse others. All this suggest that servant leaders must be real and humble persons. We need to re-think the way we relate.


Empathy, eyes and imagination – embedded in relationships with helpful others – are the building blocks of hope and meaning.