Sunday, February 27, 2005

Vision and Conflict Resolution: The crux of leadership

A literature review of a presentation from the Educational Impact Learning Library written for “Leadership to Shape the Future: Theory, Research, and Practice” (Leadership 8510)

Johnson, Johnson, & Dias (n.d.) tell the story of starting and maintaining “the dream” at Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning & Social Change, a charter public school in Harlem, New York City. The presenters were – and continue to be – involved in the life of the school and of the community. S.P. Johnson is the principal of the school and was one of the community members involved in developing the original proposal for the school. K. Johnson is an assistant pastor at the local Baptist church; he also sits on the board of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, the church-related non-profit corporation which runs the school. L. Dias, an administrator at Columbia University and the current chair of the Abyssinian Development Corporation. While each of these leaders brings a unique perspective to the community and the school, they share a basic understanding of what the school is about: they share the vision.

As S.P. Johnson notes about the start of the school, “we need to have some stronger educational initiatives in our vision of enhancing and improving the quality of life in Central Harlem. (Johnson, Johnson, & Dias, n.d., p. 2) This was the genesis for the school and the overarching vision for the school: to serve as a bedrock in the changed community. For Johnson, the vision was – and remains – fundamental. All action relates back to the vision. She offers three fundamental actions for a leader. First, have a mission and a vision, and stick to it. “Never compromise your vision.” (Johnson, Johnson, & Dias, p. 8) Second, Johnson says, “dream. Dream large, live large.” (Johnson, Johnson, & Dias, p. 8) And third develop and use a strategic plan which spans a three to five year window. The strategic plan – complete with realistic benchmarks – should be dreamt large and built on the vision.

For K. Johnson, much of the success of the school has been accomplished through partnerships, partnerships which were developed and nurtured by S. P. Johnson, the principal; S. P. Johnson was able to bring disparate people together for a common purpose. Says K. Johnson, “it’s almost like grandma’s quilt, if you will – there may be different patches, but yet she has the thread and the needle that it need to connect every person so that we all fit together for the common good.” (Johnson, Johnson, & Dias, n.d., p. 10) For him, S. P. Johnson was the person who made it all work, bringing people together for collaboration and a common purpose.

L. Dias agrees with K. Johnson: S. P. Johnson knows what she’s doing in terms of leading an organization. Dias also notes S. P. Johnson’s skills in conflict resolution. Says Dias, “The other part of the leader is that he or she must be able to engage in conflict resolution – internally and externally. You have conflict within the organizations that can carry over externally. And one must be able to recognize the source of conflict and be able to sit down and try and figure out how do you get the other person to come across to your side.” (Johnson, Johnson, & Dias, n.d., p. 17) Dias also notes, “A leader must be able to listen carefully, and then be able to address the concerns of the other party. And sometimes it means giving that person something in return for what you need.” (Johnson, Johnson, & Dias, p. 17) S. P. Johnson is, according to Dias, able to use conflict resolution skills in moving the school forward and creating the shared vision. She was “able to sit down” and “understand the real issue at hand. And she had the unique ability to help the individuals to better define their problem and then look for a solution jointly. She did not impose a solution, and I think that’s the key element in terms of conflict resolution.” (Johnson, Johnson, & Dias, p. 18)

This Educational Impact piece offers two important observations about leadership: that vision is key and that conflict resolution is vitally important. In my work as a consultant for the Coast Guard, I find that vision is powerful. With vision, an organization can almost do anything; without vision an organization sets itself up for mediocrity. Consultants – and I count myself among them – tell the apocryphal story about vision, NASA, and America’s journey to the moon. The story goes that NASA’s vision – to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade – was so well deployed throughout the organization that even janitor’s knew their contributions were putting an American on the moon. Some people suggest America succeeded at reaching the moon in large part because all the key stakeholders bought into the vision.

The role of conflict management is also important. However, conflict and conflict resolution is not linked to leadership as often as vision. Vision, and aligning stakeholder action toward that vision, is a frequent topic. Resolving conflict is less frequent. But, it’s equally important, because like vision, conflict is always in play. Having vision, or not having a vision, strongly impacts an organization’s progress. Conflict – and managing and resolving that conflict – exists whenever there’s more than one person involved. Every organization has conflict; whether or not that conflict is handled well, is a differentiator. Leaders like S. P. Johnson have a talent to handle that conflict well. And, her ability to resolve conflicts went beyond just those who were members of the school community, but to all community and school stakeholders.

Johnson, Johnson, & Dias’s presentation helps shed light on actual leadership in an actual organization. They clearly demonstrate the power of vision and the importance of conflict resolution.

References


Johnson, S. P., Johnson, K, & Dias, L. (n.d.) “Living the Dream at Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning & Social Change.” Retrieved February 17, 2005, from Nova Southeastern University, Educational Impact, Web of Support/The National Perspective on Leadership Web site at URL.

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