Mining for Conflict

By John Van Pelt  |  December 12th

In October 2019, the Upper Grand cohort invited Ralph Kikkert from STRIVE! to lead us in a professional development session based on Patrick Lencioni’s work that included a discussion on healthy and unhealthy conflict. In his presentation there was encouragement for leaders to “mine for conflict”: to know where people had differing viewpoints in their organization. Who would have known that for the next couple of years we’d be thrown into the middle of a global pandemic, and that ugly conflicts would impact so much of our work.

Conflicts around masking, vaccines, and appropriate ways to protest dominated many of our communities. Added to that were the social conflicts around race and sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) issues that many schools are walking through. We didn’t need to “mine” very deeply for conflict as it seemed like people were eager to quickly air their disagreements in a very public way. I’m guessing that very few school leaders took on our positions with a goal of immersing ourselves in conflict and playing referee to issues being played out in our communities. It’s been very tempting to want to avoid the issues and run away from conflict during these past few years.

However, when leaders avoid simmering conflicts, we risk losing touch with our boards, our staff, and our parents. Even worse - the vision of the school becomes unclear. Lencioni suggests that conflict is the “pursuit of the best idea” and is necessary for organizations. Healthy conflict leads us towards a common goal. When we seek out different opinions and invite new ways of thinking about our organizations, we end up welcoming the best ideas. According to Lencioni, innovation arises out of tension or conflict.

In one of his podcasts, Lencioni also says, “the right amount of (conflict) is whatever is necessary to make sure that people are heard and that everything gets put on the table, so that when you make the decision people will know I have weighed in, they listened to me, I know why the decision was made and I will support it even if I didn’t necessarily agree with it. People have an amazing capacity to support a decision they didn’t agree with as long as they know they were heard.” What I appreciate about this is that agreement is not necessarily the final goal, but rather understanding.  

The WayFinder Training that Edvance recently sponsored also looks at conflict as normal and expected and sets out a process for Christian conflict transformation. We are reminded that healthy conflict builds deeper relationships while avoiding conflict leads to broken relationships.  

I confess I still do not love conflict, but my personal experience in living with conflict has led me to focus on a few things:

  1. Trust - a belief that we are all working towards a common goal and that people desire what is best for the institution or school.
  2. Humility - a belief that other people might have equally good ideas or better ideas that will promote the health of the organization, and the only way we become familiar with those ideas is by listening.
  3. Forgiveness - an understanding that we all make mistakes, especially when emotions are high, and we need to be willing to forgive others and look past the ways we sometimes choose to express ourselves.

Conflict makes most of us uncomfortable and walking towards conflict, rather than away from conflict, seems risky. However, avoiding conflict does not mean it will go away. Instead, it will end up being played out through gossip sessions in parking lots and family rooms rather than in a forum where we can listen to each other and work towards what is best for our community. Mining for conflict, which does require significant courage from leaders, provides opportunity to get things on the table and ensure everyone has been heard. Mining for conflict seems counter-intuitive but increasingly it is becoming clear that leaders need to lean into conflict and develop skills in managing healthy conflict for our institutions to thrive.


John Van Pelt is the Upper Grand Cohort Leader for Edvance, and Principal at Woodland Christian High School in Breslau, ON.