How Servant Leaders Deal With Conflict by Lyle Tard

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So you’re a servant leader, huh? You’re going to come in and change your organization by “serving”, aren’t you? You’re just going to give us stuff and pat us on the head and we’re going to produce high results and high profits, is that what you think?

Interestingly enough, these are some of the comments and thoughts of many people who work in our organizations or organizations just like ours. There is a high level of disbelief that the self-serving, “first person to the flag” mentality is a method of leading and producing that is quickly dying. There are still so many who think that servant leadership is a weak minded, low yielding, soft style of leadership that just allows the flood gates to open and as Ken Blanchard puts it, “allows the inmates to run the prison.”

I just spent about a week in the mountains on a writing retreat with one of my best friends, Jonathan Z. Queen, author of books like “Are you S.A.N.E” and “Don’t Blame Me.” The subtitle of his second book is “The Convict Chronicles.” Yes, Jonathan is an ex-con and I love how he deals with conflict. It’s certainly not weak or soft. Jonathan Queen is a servant leader of the highest order, mainly because of his work with inner city youth and how he has worked to improve the prison system; inmates and corrections officials alike. Maybe inmates like him should be running the prison, or in other words, maybe the people that conventional wisdom would say can’t be successful in tough situations are the exactly people we need.

Because here’s what’s going to happen; as soon as we announce ourselves as servant leaders, if there is no buy in upfront, there will be conflict and that conflict will end up at our doorstep. Our colleagues are going to want to see what we’ll do about it. Will we wilt under the pressure? Will we cower under the intense heat? Are we going to be soft spoken and try to get everyone to play nice? Here is how servant leaders like Jonathan handle conflict:

1)    Servant leaders openly acknowledge the conflict to expose the truth.

Servant leaders know people aren’t perfect. With imperfections, servant leaders with foresight anticipate conflict and prepare for it. Servant leaders are great leaders and great leaders do not shy away from conflict, they embrace it. Servant leaders do no different. So call out a conflict immediately. Make everyone aware that we see it and we are ready to step up to the challenge.

2)    Servant leaders don’t have the goal of “winning” in conflict.

Most issues in conflict come when the conflict is personal. Most conflicts that are task-oriented are more easily handled because the parties are less offended. But avoiding emotional and personal differences is impossible. And when it is personal, the initial reaction is to want to win. Winning the argument does not produce results and results are what servant leaders are after.

3)    Servant leaders are naturally curious which leads to open-mindedness.

Amy C. Edmondson said “Authentic communication about how we think or what makes us tick helps to build the genuine, resilient relationships that are crucial to effective teams.” Servant leaders are looking for authenticity in the information driving the conflict. They are open-minded enough to listen for the things that will make the conflict genuinely effective for the team as a whole. This starts with empathy and emotional intelligence.

4)    Servant leaders identify shared goals.

After a servant leader leans in with curiosity, the way they discover what will be effective is to find the shared goals of the conflicting parties and remind them of the commonality. Servant leaders use “we” and “us” language to reinforce the mutual respect between the parties based on the goals. Shared goals are the bedrock of connection in successful organizations. When people build connections, the opportunity to redefine acceptable behavior emerges and we are on our way to resolution.

Servant leaders are excellent when handling conflict because the first response is to serve, not to defend or win. Service is strength, or how I’d like to call it, Service is Power (I know, shameless plugs). Serving in a conflict situation produces results that produces vitality with the group and creates the buy in needed to allow servant leadership practices and behaviors to thrive.


Lyle Tard

Servant Leader Catalyst, RBLP-C, Emotional Intelligence Influencer

Lyle Tard is the Founder and CEO of IMPACT Servant Leadership, started in 2018. He is currently in his 19th year as a Technical Sergeant in the United States Air Force. While still on active duty, Lyle serves his country at the 305 Maintenance Group at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst as the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of Training Management.

As a communicator, Lyle has spoken worldwide inside and out of the military community. He has motivated young adults at institutions such as Atlanta Leadership College, American University, Harvard Kennedy School of Government and his alma mater, Ashford University. Just as in the Air Force, Lyle takes pride in leading the next generation of world changers. From universities to businesses to churches, Lyle's passion is to influence the world to realize that "Leaders lead best when they serve."IMPACT Servant Leadership aims to transition our most impactful areas of society to realize that achieving power with others is more beneficial socially and economically than asserting power over others. Lyle is also the primary moderator of the Service is Power podcast, spreading the message that "The Power to Serve, Serves us All."