For leaders, the secret to effective conflict management rests almost entirely in how we choose to respond to an adversary.
In his remarkable book, The Sunflower, St. John of Tobolsk recounts a story from the fifth century of a pious church leader who displays remarkable calm and virtue in the face of a terrible offense.
Here is how St. John shares this remarkable case study in conflict management:
Saint Remigius (ca. 437-533), an archbishop, foreseeing a terrible failed harvest and famine in the coming year, gathered reserves of wheat to feed the poor.
But among the poor for whom he cared were some wicked people – drunkards, debauchers – who said to each other, “What is our cheerful old man planning? Does he perhaps plan to build himself a new city? Why did he stock up so much extra wheat? Does he perhaps plan on increasing taxes on us? Let us gather together and plan how to stop his projects.”
They chose an appropriate time and decided to burn down the archbishop’s granaries. As one of them prepared to burn it down, he said, “Let us see how in a moment these riches will turn to ash!” Then he set them on fire.
The archbishop got wind of their evil deed. Not wasting a single moment, he rode on his horse to stop them. However, he saw that the fire was already too widely spread and could not be stopped, no matter how hard anyone would try.
The archbishop, though pained by the loss, was even more pained at the spiritual state of his flock. However, he did not utter a single sorrowful or rash word nor did he rebuke the arsonists. Having dismounted, he approached the fire closer than seemed possible, as though he wanted to get warm, and said, “Warmth is always pleasant, especially for such an old man as I am.”
Saint Remigius’ example does not mean that leaders should always bite their tongue in the face of conflict. But here are three conflict management lessons we can take from his example:
- Saint Remigius chose to respond to the conflict in a manner that helped – helped him keep his peace, helped de-escalate the situation and helped others learn from his example
- Instead of choosing anger, Saint Remigius chose to feel sorrow toward his adversaries. In conflict, compassion trumps retaliation every time
- While acknowledging the obvious tragedy of what had occurred, Saint Remigius still chose to seek out the blessing in the moment – the warmth of the fire.
How would the conflicts we experience in leadership and in life look different if, like Saint Remigius, we consciously chose a response to our adversary that helped the situation rather than escalate it further?
How would our difficult relationships change if we chose to respond with compassion instead of retaliation?
How would we experience leadership and life differently if we sought out the blessing in each moment, rather than dwell on the offence we have encountered?
How would our leadership and life be different if we chose a conflict management strategy that helped?