Leadership in a Time of Conflict

February 5, 2017 by | 5 comments

What is your leadership style?
Do you like to specifically direct your team, or let them choose their own path? Do you make the decisions or do they? Are you looking at the end result, or how you got there?

Many of you are probably thinking: “It depends.”

Indeed, leadership isn’t some unmoving thing – it’s a dynamic component of team work and organizational behaviour. But if we were to drill down into your personal leadership style, how you prefer to resolve conflict, and dissect parts of your personality, we would likely find that there are trends. Some of us would prefer, more often than not, to make more of the decisions at the end of the day. Others of us would prefer to let the team decide. What is clear is that different styles may shine in different situations. In medicine, for example, when a patient presents with cardiac arrest the team often benefits from a leader that develops a clear mental plan and can communicate clear decisions quickly. Alternatively, when a complex but stable patient presents the team may benefit from the opportunity to weigh various options and decide on a plan together. In this way, we may sometimes have a good leader but a bad fit.

So what is a leader to do when they are faced with conflict? Sometimes we get lucky, in that when a conflict crops up the leadership team has the right combination of people and skills to address it effectively. If this is the case, the conflict typically gets resolved quickly and efficiently.

But what if the conflict lingers? What if it continues to grow and threatens the morale of the organization and compromises the ability of the team to perform any meaningful work? It is at this point that there must be recognition that if conflict is ongoing and even increasing, that the current strategy to deal with the conflict is not effective. This may be due to a whole host of reasons including being unprepared, shifting circumstances, or that the current team may not be the right fit to deal with the current situation. It may be a situation of ‘good leaders, bad fit’. If this is the case, a leadership change is often the only way to resolve the conflict.

Taking a historical look, in the lead-up to WWII, Neville Chamberlain, then Prime Minister of the UK, adopted an unsuccessful (but popular at the time) foreign policy of appeasement. As Germany became more aggressive, and war was officially declared, it became clear that Chamberlain did not have the support of all of the political parties, something that he felt was critically important during a period of war. In May of 1940 he resigned as Prime Minister, making way for Chuchill to ascend and lead the nation during WWII. Churchill’s combination of charismatic and transformational leadership traits allowed him to unite a nation during a growing period of extreme conflict. During his resignation address to the nation, Chamberlain said: “And you and I must rally behind our new leader, and with our united strength, and with unshakable courage fight…” It was a changing of the guard, and done with the recognition that the act of resigning and allowing a new leader that was better positioned to lead during a new period of conflict was itself a key act of leadership. After Churchill lead a united UK to victory in WWII he was promptly trounced in the 1945 election by Clement Attlee’s government, which was felt to have domestic policies better suited to handling the problems of post-war Britain. This was a fascinating period for UK leadership, and even a superficial analysis allows us to appreciate different leadership styles that were each suited to a different set of problems. It was a combination of a resignation and a democratic election that allowed the UK to transition quickly and successfully both toward and away from years of war. We can only imagine how history may be different if Chamberlain did not make way for Churchill and instead attempted to lead a divided War Council, or Churchill was not then replaced by Attlee and tried to implement war-era domestic policies in post-war UK. Each an elite leader, and each suited to a different set of challenging circumstances.

How does this relate to medical politics?

The current executive of the OMA is filled with passionate, intelligent physicians, who have dedicated an inordinate amount of time to leadership and representation. These are good people, and I feel very fortunate to have worked with some of them even on a brief, peripheral basis. Their terms have unfortunately coincided with a highly frustrating and distressing time for physicians, which has resulted in significant agitation for change. Had this been five years earlier, their terms would likely have been far less controversial. Be that as it may, after arguably a prolonged period of unresolved conflict, the OMA needs a change in course.  This is a case of ‘good leaders, wrong fit.’ The recent Special Council Meeting showed the extent to which physicians are disenchanted with the direction things are going, and psychologically there needs to be decisive action. The board has plans to meet through this weekend to develop a strategy for next steps, and are faced with an unprecedented decision – to ask for the Executive to step down. Here are two options to speculate about:

1) The board can reiterate its confidence in the executive.
The likely result at this point would be to increasingly empower groups that would then call for another General Meeting with a specific membership question regarding removal. Should this happen, it may interfere with the upcoming elections and dramatically change the tone of OMA renewal. It would also continue to shine unwanted media attention on restructuring efforts, and would be difficult to spin away from ‘coup’ comments.

2) The board can ask for resignations.
This is an unfortunate outcome for hardworking physician leaders, but would allow for much of the membership to feel that the OMA, in a belated fashion, is responsive to changing member needs. Coupled with the upcoming elections, there could be a significant sense of renewal of the OMA that would allow it to more easily pivot to a new course. This could also be comfortably spun as being a reasonable response to an historic vote of non-confidence. “Making room for new leadership in a challenging time.”

The need for a significant and rapid culture shift, while rare, is undoubtedly upon us. The question isn’t if it will happen, but when, and how it will be achieved.


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Photo credit: Jugbo

About the Author

Taylor Lougheed is a physician in Family and Emergency Medicine, and passionate about sustainable public healthcare, quality improvement and patient safety, medical education, and global health.


  1. Graham Slaughter

    Disenfranchised? I think disenchanted might be the better word. Council members were specifically given the task of deciding whether to demonstrate confidence in the executive. They used their franchise to say no, they do not. They were then asked to decide whether to remove each member of the executive from their post. They used their franchise to say no, but it was close. But the disenchantment necessary to even get to a 50/50 split on the retention on the president is remarkable. Tomorrow will be an interesting day.

    • Taylor Lougheed

      You’re quite right, Graham, thank you for the comment. I’ve made the edit.

  2. Fed up

    Yes! Not convinced about “good leaders” but definitely “bad fit”.
    This post is the nicest way of asking them to step down.

  3. Andrew S

    I agree, Taylor I think it is time for a major leadership shift at the OMA. The combination of executive stepping down and the upcoming elections could revitalize the profession.

  4. New Start

    Good assessment, and prescient now that the exec has resigned. Now time to rebuild!

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