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Leadership means knowing when to dig in, but also when to give in.
“It is not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” — Epictetus
Conflict is part of life. Most of us try to avoid it as much as we can, either through gestures of compromise or by not standing up for ourselves.
Yet, despite our best efforts, there will be times when we have to confront something we’d rather not—or perhaps we’re confronted by others. Whether we have to cede ground, claim victory, or experience a crushing blow, the results are simply a matter of reality.
And it’s natural to have a victory celebration or a temper tantrum, depending on the direction fate points. We’re emotional beings. We get swept up in the moment.
Ultimately, we’ll be judged on our reaction. For that is the only thing we can control in most circumstances.
We can’t control what people will think, nor can we regulate elements that are external to us. Our emotions and our comportment are entirely within our own power; how we express them will send a signal to the world about how we wish to be perceived.
Some of the most legendary conflicts in literature and history have involved inter-family squabbles. The Montagues and Capulets were bitterly divided in Romeo and Juliet; the Hatfields and McCoys kept their squabbles going on for decades.
These came to an end, though. Eventually. It took prosecution and a hanging for the Hatield-McCoy feud to quiet down; it wasn’t until 2003 that their descendants declared an official truce.
The patriarchs of the Montagues and Capulets arrived at a family crypt to find their children dead by their own hands. Overwhelmed with sorrow and remorse, they pledge unity, as Capulet says,
“O brother Montague, give me thy hand:
This is my daughter’s jointure, for no more
Can I demand.”
We get so wrapped up in the competition, in crushing the foe and "winning," we set the course of events by our actions and reactions. Our grace (or lack thereof) shows what we’re all about.
You know, it’s funny: as I was thinking about this second essay this week, it struck me that grace can be correlated with empathy. If you have empathy for your competition, you can imagine how you’d feel in their place and can temper your behavior accordingly.
Devoid of compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and open-mindedness, it’s difficult to find common ground.
How much compassion do we show our employees on a regular basis? They’re stressed out, they have a variety of commitments, they’re trying to deal with the myriad changes that are affecting us all. By extending a little grace their way, you address things like hours, time off, flexibility, fewer meetings, extended deadlines, information overload, different modes of learning, and more.
It’s only when we’re understanding and open to new solutions that we can engage in the give-and-take of negotiations. We can give concessions with good will, not only ensuring what works for us, but looking out for others as well.
All in the Family
Family squabbles are the worst. We dig in our heels, sometimes for so long that we forget why we initially took a stand. So it was with Bill and his Aunt Caroline in the late 1800s.
Bill had more money, Caroline had more social standing. They lived next to each other in the city, two sprawling mansions separated by a garden. With her more stately home and her annual party of society’s four hundred most prominent citizens, her wealthier nephew was perturbed.
So, Bill tore his mansion down, replacing it with—as only the uber-rich can do—a hotel. A high-rise hotel that would dwarf his aunt’s four-story home. Named after Bill, when it opened in 1893, it was grand: 450 guest rooms and 100 additional rooms for servants, thirteen stories, and grand public rooms. It was so grand, it caused Aunt Caroline to abandon her house and build another one further uptown.
But that wasn’t the end of the feud. Aunt Caroline was a woman of some principle, and she couldn’t stand being outdone. She and her son engaged a firm to tear down her old mansion and build a rival hotel in its place: one that would be more luxurious—and taller—than her nephew's hotel!
The dangerous combination of wealth and enmity could have extended the feud in any number of directions, but it was the cool-headed intervention of Bill’s hotel manager that provided the wisdom of Solomon. Rather than two competing hotels, side by side, why not join the two for a single operating mega-hotel that couldn't be matched anywhere in the city?
The truce and the plans were drawn up, as the architects constructed openings between the hotels that could be bricked up later, should the family quarrel resume.
Did it work? Well, the hotel became one of New York’s greatest, lasting until 1929 in its original form on Fifth Avenue. It was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building, but was built again on Park Avenue, this time a hyphenate in name only: the Waldorf-Astoria.
As with so many events in life, it usually takes something drastic—sometimes tragic—to give us perspective, making us realize that there are some things that are more important than winning or putting someone else in their place.
In the end, all we have are relationships.
The inheritance we leave to the next generation won’t be written in gold or real estate or corporate acquisitions.
What we leave behind is our legacy.
“Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” — William Shakespeare, 1595
Golfer Brandon Matthews was interrupted by a fan who screamed as he was putting for a championship. The missed putt cost him the championship and a playoff spot. But when he found out that the fan had Down Syndrome and lost control of his emotions, his reaction spoke volumes. (ESPN)
Tough macho leadership is on its way out. Taking its place? Compassion and empathy. (Fast Company)
“A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished” — William Shakespeare, 1595
We talk about the Founding Fathers as “framers” of the Constitution and as “nation-builders.” Many of them were Freemasons, who refer to “the Grand Architect of the Universe.” Joe Biden has promised to “Build Back Better.” A history of building as a metaphor for democracy. (JSTOR)
Thucydides recounted the task before Athenians as they grappled with the appropriate retribution for their enemies, the Mytilenians. Cleon determined they should be executed, but publicly debated his decision:
“Because fear and conspiracy play no part in your daily relations with each other, you imagine that the same thing is true of your allies, and you fail to see that when you allow them to persuade you to make a mistaken decision and when you give way to your own feelings of compassion, you are being guilty of a kind of weakness that is dangerous to you and that will not make them love you any more. What you do not realize is that your empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you; you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests in order to do them a favor; your leadership depends on superior strength and not on any goodwill of theirs. And this is the very worst thing: to pass measures and then not to abide by them. We should realize that a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered, that lack of learning combined with sound common sense is more helpful than the kind of cleverness that gets out of hand, and that as a general rule states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals. These are the sort of people who want to appear wiser than the laws, who want to get their own way in every general discussion, because they feel that they cannot show off their intelligence in matters of greater importance, and who, as a result, very often bring ruin on their country.” (Lapham’s Quarterly)
How to give a concession speech with dignity, grace and generosity: George H.W. Bush’s 1992 concession speech. (YouTube)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — Frederick Douglass, 1854
🎧 Stoic Meditations is a podcast on occasional reflections on the wisdom of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers by Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at CUNY-City College.
📘 Being empathetic at work means seeing the situation from another’s perspective, and using that vantage point to shape your leadership style, workplace culture, and branding strategy. In The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success, Maria Ross pairs her knowledge as a branding expert with proven research and fascinating stories from executives, change-makers and community leaders, revealing exactly how empathy makes brands and organizations stronger and more successful.
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.