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The Conflict You Carry: What Every Leader Should Know.

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

It’s easy to blame others or our environment for the conflict in our lives. What’s harder is admitting that much of our conflict pain is self-inflicted.

In police academy, recruits are cautioned to never say that any encounter is routine.

“There’s no such thing as a routine encounter,” instructors would say. “Every time you show up with that gun, that encounter is a potentially deadly one.”

Over time, I came to appreciate both the literal and the figurative meanings of that message. Literally speaking, we introduce death into every room we step into. Figuratively speaking, we carry conflict with us everywhere we go. If we aren’t careful about how we aim our actions and our words, people can get hurt.


Consider this question: What has conflict cost you?

For everyone, conflict costs something different. For some, it costs time and money. For others, conflict may cost relationships or the respect of one’s peers. For others still, it costs them physical health, peace of mind, sleep at night, and their sanity.

And that might just be in your personal life.

For leaders in the workplace, we know that conflict costs even more. One study revealed that nearly 40% of the CEOs surveyed were fired for misconduct and ethical issues. Another international study revealed that only 37% of the respondents surveyed felt that their leadership was succeeding at encouraging a good working environment and team culture.

Even more concerning is a study that revealed the costs of conflict; $359B each year in paid hours is lost to conflict in U.S.-based businesses. What’s worse is that the same report revealed that 7 out of 10 employees believe that managing conflict is a “very” or “critically” important leadership skill, but more than half of U.S. employees report never being properly trained to deal with conflict.

Most leaders fail to recognize that they are the biggest source of conflict within their organizations.

The Problem with Conflict: It’s Latent When you think of conflict, you may think of external conflict. External conflict is conflict that exists outside of an individual. It lives between two or more individuals, teams, organizations, or countries even. External conflict can be the result of a power struggle, fighting over limited resources, differing opinions and world-views, competing values, personality conflicts, or any number of other issues that pit parties against one another.

To solve an external conflict, the parties involved discuss their issues and potential solutions, agree to seek resolution, and through mediation or facilitation find consensus despite their contention.

But what happens when conflict is internal? What happens when the conflict that lives just below the surface - dormant - is awakened?

This internal conflict, or latent conflict, is the conflict you carry. Like a fingerprint, it remains hidden in plain sight. When the conditions are right, the fingerprint can be exposed and seen. And like a fingerprint, your exposed internal conflict leaves a mark on those you touch. It’s informed by your preferences, your biases, preconceived notions, and assumptions. It is the combination of your character flaws and your ineptness joined by your personal desires and ambitions. It is the internal sum of your disappointments, unrealized expectations, aspirations, and dreams. Collectively, these internal conflict factors influence what you do as a leader, and how you do what you do as a leader.

Our internal conflict drives us, and most of us aren’t even aware that it exists.

Bringing Out The Best

Every leader has their own conflict triggers. It’s the thing or the many things that push you over the proverbial edge and causes you to do and say things that might cause your character to come into question.

In order for you to ensure that the conflict you’re carrying doesn’t come out in destructive ways, there are some things that you must know.

1. Principled Thinking Leads to a Lack of Self-Awareness Principled thinking occurs when you reject the truth about your own behavior and instead choose to assert that you behave according to acceptable ideal principles, even when you don’t.

You may be a private perfectionist who presents as a control freak, but you tell yourself that you are a concerned team player who simply doesn’t want your team to fail. Likewise, you may be an impatient communicator who hates repeating yourself and fails to listen well. You tell yourself, however, that you are a high-capacity leader with no time for ‘small talk,’ so you have to be concise, clear, and direct. Some of you may be aggressive and generally disrespectful to those around you. You could have an unintentionally incendiary personality and a toxic persona that causes you to struggle in team settings. Still, you tell yourself that this is what it takes for a business to succeed. ‘Your job isn’t to be enjoyed,’ you tell yourself. ‘It’s to be effective! If people don’t like you, they can work somewhere else.’

In his book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Dr. Travis Bradberry, describes self-awareness as one of the four core components of emotional intelligence.

When you lack self-awareness, you are unable to perceive how you are showing up, as it is happening. While you may not be able to recognize how you show up, the people around you will. Like an officer carrying a holstered firearm, the people around you will know that you are armed, but they may perceive you as dangerous even when you see yourself as an ally.

2. Find Balance Between Insecurity and Arrogance The middle ground between insecurity and arrogance is humility. It’s simultaneously knowing that you don’t know everything, but you know that you’ve got what it takes to figure it out.

The hard truth about leadership is that a majority of leaders started out grossly unequipped to do their jobs, are still actively struggling with imposter syndrome and self-doubt, and if they were honest, are regularly making things up as they go. But they do it with confidence. Sometimes, the hardest thing about leading others is first believing that you can do it. When internal conflict in the form of diminished self-confidence makes its debut, it not only impacts your credibility, but it can also cause you to stagnate.

As a leader, you are expected to be a dreamer and a visionary, but you must also deliver on those big ideas. When you are fighting an internal battle against yourself, it can lead to external implications. You might not speak up as quickly as you ought to. You may not act when necessary, instead opting to shrink back. You may seek excessive validation from others to make you feel more confident, but that can cause you to appear incompetent or vulnerable. You may overcompensate in your areas of strength to cover your perceived deficiencies.

Just as problematic is internal conflict in the form of overconfidence. Arrogant leaders who willfully charge into hell carrying only a wet towel and those who invalidate the capabilities of others while over-inflating themselves will quickly find themselves in hot water.

We live in a world that celebrates egoism and hostility in the workplace, but that requires leading from an internal conflict perspective. These leaders say, “Employees are expendable, I’m superior, and everyone must acquiesce to me.”

In truth, the best leaders learn to embrace collaboration while leading with inspiration, fairness, and humility. These leaders say, “Employees are assets, I’m privileged to lead them, and I’m no better than anyone else. I’m just in a better position to be seen.”

3. Focus Only on What You Can Control When you lack self-control, that makes you emotional. It means that you shoot from the hip and fail to think before you act. Your motto is, “Ready, Fire, Aim…”

Leaders who demonstrate a lack of self-control are usually carrying internal conflict that activates their primitive brains. Fear of negative outcomes or fear of being held accountable for a major project may cause a leader to resort to self-preserving behaviors that present as aggressive, threatening, and adversarial.

If you are an emotional leader, you would be best served by surrounding yourself with level-headed team members who can give you a greater perspective on issues. Additionally, you should learn to intentionally slow down and practice the art of delay. Give yourself time to think before you respond impulsively. This way, you might allow yourself time to activate your rational, evolved brain and make calculated decisions over impulsive ones.


What are some ways you’ve worked to grow your self-awareness, self-confidence, or self-control as a leader? Share your insights with others, that they may benefit from your experience!


Ryan Dunlap is a conflict strategist and the founder of Conflictish, a conflict strategy consultancy dedicated to helping leaders navigate all of the 'ish that comes with conflict. From tarnished rapport to hellish attitudes to sluggish performance, Conflictish helps leaders get 'ish done.


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