‘You could start a fight in an empty room, mate.’ (Allan Jones)
I’ve never sought conflict. Far from it. I much prefer harmony and peace. That said, however, I can’t escape a similar calling to that which Martin Luther King once heard: ‘Stand up for righteousness! Stand up for justice! Stand up for truth!’ It’s a call that burns deeply inside of me and has done, as far as I can remember it, for my entire life. I’m pained to admit that I haven’t always followed that voice anywhere near as courageously as MLK. I haven’t always handled it with his astonishing humility and love. I’ve stayed silent when I should have spoken up or spoken up when I should have stayed silent. My words have stumbled out clumsily. I’ve caused pain where I meant to bring healing and hope.
Yet, at times, this vocational stance has proved authentic, valuable and worthwhile. In my 30s, I worked for a large UK charity in the health and social care sector. As an idealistic young radical, I challenged the leadership team on numerous occasions when I believed we were compromising our values. I tried to do this with prayer and humility and out of a genuine desire to build relationship and trust. On one occasion, the leadership team decided, in view of limited budget, to increase only senior leadership salaries until it had secured sufficient funding to increase frontline staff salaries too. I argued vociferously that we should do the exact opposite – and to freeze my own salary as a first step.
On another occasion, the leadership team decided to reserve all spaces in its small head office car park for executives only, given that they didn’t have time to drive around to look for parking places elsewhere. I advocated passionately that, especially in the winter months, the spaces should be reserved for female and other vulnerable staff or visitors so that they wouldn’t have to walk along dark city streets at night to their cars. On yet another occasion, the leadership team recruited a ‘hatchet man’ on temporary contract to implement a tough restructure with associated redundancies. I protested that this blunt way of approaching the change would damage relationships, engagement and trust.
At times, I imagined my challenges and counter-proposals were met with deafening silence or heavy sighs – especially as I wasn’t a senior leader at the time. Nevertheless, when a serious crisis broke out between the leadership team and entire middle management, both sides to the conflict invited me to mediate as ‘the only person they could trust’. The chief executive, a man of remarkable humility, took me into his confidence and treated me like a respected thought-partner. When I moved on, the company secretary wrote to me to say he had never encountered such integrity. Even the dreaded ‘hatchet man’ wrote that he wouldn’t hesitate to employ me alongside him in any future role.
Pray with humility – take a stance – speak the truth in love.
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