Leading Leaders

Dealing With Difficult People

Sometimes it’s not all rainbows and bird-horses

It’s normal for leaders at all levels to come into conflict with other leaders, and sometimes there are impasses that cannot be overcome. Not everyone’s values and thinking aligns, and there will be differences in opinion. Those opinion differences are not, in themselves, a problem since diversity of thought is desired on any team. Groupthink gets people into trouble more often than any other reason, except breaches of integrity. The trouble with differences of opinion happen when those impasses shift from a difference of opinion to real interpersonal conflict. That’s something leaders should avoid to the greatest extent possible.

Interpersonal Conflict Between Leaders Destroys Productivity

When leaders have conflict, so do organizations. It’s nearly impossible for teams to work together when their leaders won’t or can’t. I’ve experienced this first-hand. Once two senior leaders in a matrixed organization where I worked years ago reached an impasse and could not get along. In fact, they simply stopped talking to one another. It put many of us in a very uncomfortable position, because it forced us to choose a “side.” It hamstrung the two teams from sharing information and in many ways damaged the trust between two teams that had to trust each other.

Contain the Emotion

Sometimes another person decides to be difficult, either on purpose or because they’re not a nice person. In those cases it’s best to keep your emotions in check. It’s very normal and very easy for mere mortals to allow emotions to bubble up during difficult conversations. Successful leaders keep their emotions in check most of the time, and extraordinary leaders keep them in check all the time. This can’t be stressed enough.

It reminds me of the movie Bridge of Spies and the captured Soviet KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance). In the film, Colonel Abel faces death several times, first from his conviction for spying in the United States, and then at the hands of his own government on his return. Each time his lawyer (Tom Hanks) explained the predicament Abel was in, and asked him, “Aren’t you worried?” Abel responded, “Will it help?” Excellent advice.

Remember You’re Not Alone

I received very good advice from a priest once, who recommended I avoid investing emotional energy in relationships that are going nowhere. Leaders should always understand that continuing to invest in a dialogue with an “immovable object” is only harmful to ourselves. Negative emotions are that that way, you know, they only add to our own misery and to those around us.
Leaders have a special responsibility in this regard since our people will feed off our emotions. Senior leaders must be especially careful. It’s very disconcerting to those around us when senior leaders are in foul mood. It’s OK to be human, just recognize those around you will feel your mood as well. When you feel bad or angry, remember Abel’s words, “Will it help?”


Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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