The Elephant in the Boardroom: A book review by Bob Morris

Elephant in the BoardroomThe Elephant in the Boardroom: How Leaders Use and Manage Conflict to Reach Greater Levels of Success
Edgar Papke
Career Press (2015)

How and why great leaders embrace conflict as an opportunity rather than view it as a peril

In a previously published book, True Alignment: Linking Company Culture with Customer Needs for Extraordinary Results, Edgar Papke offers a measurable and observable approach to achieving and then sustaining alignment of customer needs with an organization’s leadership, culture, and brand intention. This is indeed a major challenge to business leaders.

Papke agrees: “To confront this challenge, leaders need a systemic framework for understanding, assessing, and creating alignment. They and their teams and organizations require an approach that cuts through the complexity and eliminates the noise from multiple priorities, numerous initiatives, and the confusion of choices and options; an approach that provides a clear and simple roadmap to success.” I agree with all that except the word “simple.” If the process really were simple, there would be no need for this book, or for any of the other 3,623 books on business alignment that Amazon now offers for sale.

Contrary to what some people may think, conflict is not necessarily undesirable. Throughout history, great leaders have created situations in which conflict in the form of principled dissent is needed to find the right solution to an especially serious problem, to find the right answer to an especially important question. This is probably what Papke has in mind in The Elephant in the Boardoom when observing, “Regardless of which approach to leadership you may subscribe to, the primary challenge to becoming a great leader is to confront and constructively manage the conflict that is at the heart of how our institutions, organizations, and teams function; conflict that is the result of the innate desire of human beings to compete and fulfill our wants and needs, and that reveals differing views, values, beliefs, and ideas; conflict that also too easily manifests into dysfunctional, unproductive, and destructive behavior” when there is an absence of effective leadership to prevent that behavior.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me in Chapters 1-10, also listed to suggest the scope of Papke’s coverage:

o Creating Change (Pages 29-31)
o Confronting Conflict (31-34)
o Stepping Into Reality (36-37)
o Is It Always About Winning? (49-52)
o The Source of Innovation and Creativity (52-54)
o The Highest Level of Responsibility (57-60)
o Dysfunctions That Are Common “Elephants” (65-69)
o Linking Conflict to Innovation (74-77)
o Cultures Follow Leaders (77-81)
o Every Culture Has Its Way (84-87)
o The Competitive Advantage of Listening (88-90)
o The Confidence to Lead (98-100)
o Self-Invention (107-114)
o The Ultimate Skill (121-122)
o The Four Beliefs (122-126)
o The Power of Choice (126-127)

Here are Papke’s concluding remarks and they speak for me as well: “The world is yearning for greater trust in its leaders. From top to bottom, and all across our organizations, communities, and businesses, there is a hunger for leaders with integrity and courage. I hope that through my work you will become more intimate with your unique relationship to conflict and how to build the trust that others look for. By becoming more intimate with your relationship to conflict and by developing the capabilities to more effectively and constructively manage life’s conflicts, I believe you will succeed in learning how to be a leader and will accomplish the fulfillment you deserve. Rather than finding yourself in the role of the elephant, you will become the truly great leader you intend to be.”

The value of the material, insights, and counsel that Edgar Papke provides is incalculable. The key to resolving a conflict is to approach it as an opportunity rather than as a peril. Those who read this book will be much better prepared to do that when resolving conflicts, forging a consensus, and alleviating tensions more quickly and more thoroughly than they otherwise could.

All organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. They are stewards and viewed as authentic, guided by what Jim O’Toole characterizes as a “moral compass” and by what Bill George characterizes as their “True North.” They see themselves as being what Robert Greenleaf calls servant leaders. It is no coincidence that most of the companies annually ranked among those that are most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry. They have developed such leadership because they know that, with all due respect to vision, presence, and emotional intelligence, they also need leaders whose skills and temperament enable them to leverage conflict whenever and wherever it occurs.

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