Sunday, May 29, 2005

Connective Leadership: Existentialism, conflict resolution, and leadership development

A paper written for “Creating and Leading an Intentional Organization” (Leadership 8520).

Nearly a decade ago, Lipman-Blumen (1996) published her seminal study tying together her more than a quarter-century of study in the field of leadership. Lipman-Blumen posits that in order to succeed in today’s changing world, leaders must adopt models of leadership which tackle the “tensions between interdependence and diversity” (p. xi) as these tensions continue to escalate and impact personal, professional, organizational, and communal relationships. Lipman-Blumen suggests that we are entering a new era. Previously, we were in the physical era, where physical boundaries – such as rivers and mountains – formed the barriers between groups of people. Leaders in the physical era used these barriers both offensively and defensively. Slowly there was a shift to what she calls the geopolitical era, where geopolitical boundaries and ideologies defined differences. She suggests we are now moving into the connective era where “the connections among concepts, people, and the environment are tightening,” (p. 8) where physical and geopolitical boundaries no longer define us or prevent us from moving from place to place, and where – at the same time – diversity, differences, and interdependence are more important and more vital than they were in previous eras.

Lipman-Blumen (1996) suggests that in order to succeed in this new connective era, leaders must adopt a new model, a model she calls the “connective leadership model.” (p. 113) This model
describes three general categories or sets of behaviors … used by individuals for achieving their objectives…. Each set encompasses three (specific) styles, resulting in a full complement of nine achieving styles…. Connective leaders comfortably use the full palette of connective leadership styles in various combinations. (p. 119)
Using Lipman-Blumen’s (1996) construct of the world, a number of issues rise to the surface. Three key issues revolve around the question of meaning, resolution of conflict, and leadership development. As we examine leadership, leadership models, and leadership development, the fundamental existential questions of meaning become crucial; as we look at leadership in Lipman-Blumen’s third stage of the world – the connective era – the idea of how leaders help resolve conflict in a world defined by diversity and interdependence becomes pivotal; and, as we look at Lipman-Blumen’s 9-fold model, the question of leadership development becomes primary.

The Existential Question of Meaning

How does Connective Leadership answer the existential question of meaning? Lipman-Blumen (1996) suggests that at the core of the human experience lies an existential uncertainty.
At the very core of our human condition lies the immutable reality that we can neither predict nor totally control our destiny. This reality, which I call “existential uncertainty,” is the first of a pair of such demons we fend off with all our might. (p. 36)
She goes on to suggest that the second demon is existential anxiety.
The realization of how little we can do to reduce the uncertainty associated with human life provokes the appearance of that demon’s mate: a pervasive, deep-seated dread I’ll call “existential anxiety.” Always hovering just below our consciousness, existential anxiety silently colors every aspect of our lives, troubling our working hours and haunting our dreams as we sleep. (p. 36)
For Lipman-Blumen, “the most common method for dealing with existential dread is to seek protectors outside ourselves.” (p. 38) She suggests, “we seek human leaders whom we endow with godlike qualities.” (p. 38) Leaders impact both the existential uncertainty and the existential anxiety. “We trust our leaders to keep the world on an even keel, even if we ourselves cannot. We attribute events, both good and bad, to leaders’ intervention or control.” This is, Lipman-Blumen acknowledges, a devil’s bargain: we must play by the leader’s rules, and we must overlook the leader’s weaknesses. This “leads to the profound ambivalence many of us feel about our leaders – and about leadership itself.” (p. 39) But, all is not lost. For Lipman-Blumen, that ambivalence does not hold us firm, it does not freeze us, it does not bring about inaction. “The ongoing excavation of the leadership concept is part of the deeper search for the meaning of life, a search for how each of us mere mortals fits into the larger picture.” (p. 325) She goes on to suggest, “In some inchoate way, we sense that despite our Odyssean search leadership remains an immanent, mysterious process.” (p. 325)

Lipman-Blumen (1996) goes on to suggest that this Odyssean search is linked to our pervasive fear of death, an ever present theme for existentialists, and that we thus search for four things. First, we search for leaders, gods, and belief systems to protect us. (p. 328) Second, we search for life’s meaning (and she suggests this is an endless search). (p. 328) Third, we seek “life expanding experiences” which will deaden the existential fear. (p. 328) And, fourth we search for a way to transcend our own mortal death by leaving something permanent, a “permanent footstep in the shifting sands of immortality.” (p. 329) This is similar to the needs Covey (2004) defines as being universal for every human. Covey suggests every person has four innate human needs: to live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy. (p. 21)

For Lipman-Blumen (1996), the connective leadership model provides a way – a method, a roadmap – for the existential search. Succeeding at leadership through the model allows for melding interdependence and diversity in a world that craves systems which address the needs of organizations and groups: short-term coalitions, flexible and fast-moving organizations, and connections and relationships between and among peoples. (p. 10)

Conflict in a Changing World

In what ways does the model of Connective Leadership address conflict and conflict resolution? Lipman-Blumen’s (1996) model for connective leadership has three general sets of behaviors. Instrumental behaviors maximize interactions; direct behaviors ensure mastery of one’s own tasks; relational behaviors contribute to other’s tasks. (p. 112) One of the relational behaviors is collaboration. “Collaboration turns out to be an important tool for resolving conflicts,” states Lipman-Blumen. “Collaboration incorporates two related processes for solving complex problems in an interdependent world: resolving conflicts and advancing shared visions.” Wilmot & Hocker (2001) state, “Collaboration demands the most constructive engagement of any of the conflict styles.” (p. 161) In addition, they note collaboration “provides a constructive response to the conflict” and in a variety of contexts results in “better decisions and greater satisfaction with partners.” (p. 161) Bolton (1979) states, “Collaborative problem solving requires the use of listening skills, assertion skills, and the conflict resolution method.” (p. 240) We see, then, that collaboration, fundamental for success in today’s world according to Lipman-Blumen’s model, provides also the fundamental building block for successful conflict resolution.

Another necessary element in conflict resolution is “a special form of empathy.” (Lipman-Blumen, 1996, p. 207) She notes that the “capacity to discern an ally within an opponent” is the same talent which helps “understand the other party’s point of view.” (p. 207) Covey (2004) places empathic listening, listening “within the other’s frame of reference,” as the highest form of listening on the listening continuum. (p. 192) This empathic listening, vital to conflict resolution (Bolton, 1979, p. 269; Lulofs & Cahn, 2000, 219; Moore, 2003; 468), is a fundamental aspect of Lipman-Blumen’s personal achieving style, one of the three styles of the instrumental behavior set.

Leadership Development in a Hierarchical Organization

What does Connective Leadership tell us which can provide a foundation or input to leadership development in the U.S. Coast Guard? In many respects, the U.S. Coast Guard is an organization created and enmeshed in Lipman-Blumen’s (1996) geopolitical era and trying to pull its way out of the muck of this era and dive into the connective era. The Coast Guard is currently undergoing a radical shift along its most fundamental ideologies. For years, longer than anyone currently in the Coast Guard has served, the Coast Guard has had two divisions at the delivery of services level: operations and marine safety. These two stovepipes have provided services to the public in overlapping geographic areas, each with its own ideology and culture. Following 9/11 and the new port-level needs demanded by new mission areas, the Coast Guard’s senior leadership decided to merge these disparate entities into single port-level organizations which provide all Coast Guard services in a given area. The service is finding itself entering an era when “connections among concepts, people, and the environment are tightening” (Lipman-Blumen, p. 8) and her predictions of “short-term coalitions, changing kaleidoscopically” and “flexible, fast-moving organizations” in a world in which connections and networks “take on new importance as major discontinuities server the links” to traditions seem to be on the threshold. (p. 10)

The Coast Guard’s 28 leadership competencies (U.S. Coast Guard, 2004) provide Coast Guard personnel with a set of competencies which the service believes will ensure successful leadership during and beyond this time of change and uncertainty. The 28 competencies are divided into four broad categories: leading self, leading others, leading performance and change, and leading the Coast Guard. While these are not exactly similar to Lipman-Blumen’s (1996) model, there is substantial overlap.

Perhaps, however, the most applicable application of Lipman-Blumen’s (1996) model is her notion that leadership and organizational styles ought to match to succeed in this new world view. The challenges she suggests organizations will face include creating a sense of motivation and belonging amid alienation and diversity (p. 258), new organizational structures based on alliances (p. 259), succession planning which ensures leaders at all levels of the organization (p. 262), and dealing with a rapid pace of change through innovation and discontinuity. (p. 264) She suggests in order to be successful, organizations must align their cultures, values, rewards, and discontinuities with connective leadership achieving styles. (p. 274) To succeed, not only must people – both leaders and subordinates – change, but organizations must change to, aligning their processes and systems to support and encourage the new leadership sets. For the Coast Guard, this will be one of the most trying of initiatives; more than 200 years of culture pull back.


Lipman-Blumen (1996) provides a mental model which is certainly useful as we move into the 21st century. While this work is nearly a decade old, the material is perhaps more relevant today than it was when it was first published. Her connective leadership model lays out the behaviors and achieving styles which address what she sees as the shifting tides in the world today: a world which is more connected, more interdependent, and more diverse than the world of yesteryear; the world of today and tomorrow demands new behaviors to ensure effectiveness. The connective model – based on years of qualitative research (interviews of leaders), quantitative research (results from two survey instruments), and literature research (historical, biographical, and autobiographical sources) (p. xiv) – addresses a variety of issues including three key questions. Lipman-Blumen’s model provides a framework which helps leaders, and subordinates, answer the pressing existential questions – particularly in a world which, as it becomes more connected and diverse also becomes more fragmented, leaving the individual more alienated and anxious – providing a framework to connect, find protection, and take on heroic responsibilities. The model also provides behaviors which are necessary for conflict resolution. As the world becomes more diverse and more connected, conflicts will be inevitable. The leader of today and tomorrow must be able to resolve conflicts effectively; Lipman-Blumen’s leadership behaviors achieve that end. And finally, the model provides a framework for leadership development in organizations which, until now, have been grounded in the industrial, geopolitical paradigms of yesterday.


Bolton, R. (1979). People Skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Covey, S. R. (2004). The Eighth Habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York: Free Press.

Lipman-Blumen, J. (1996). Connective Leadership: Managing in a changing world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lulofs, R. S. and Cahn, D. D. (2000). Conflict: From theory to action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Moore, C. W. (2003). The Mediation Process: Practical strategies for resolving conflict (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

U.S. Coast Guard (2004). New U.S. Coast Guard Leadership Competencies. Retrieved February 1, 2005, from website

Wilmot, W. W. & Hocker, J. L. (2001). Interpersonal Conflict (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.