In our previous post we looked at the 4 Stages of Opposition and considered the warning signs, indicators and ramifications of each through the story of the Israelites rebuilding the temple in the book of Ezra.
Identifying and understanding the stages is only half the battle. Knowing alone will accomplish nothing. How we responds to each stage will determine the difference between success or failure of the mission and vision we seek to accomplish.
The following represents some insights we can learn about responding to each stage. In the comment section below, add any other tips or suggestions you can offer.
1. Responding to Dormancy
As my first basketball coach, my dad used to always say, “The best defense is a good offense.” Staying out in front, keeps your opponent on their heels. The same is true when dealing with opposition to leadership. Rather then wait for it to show its face, great leaders know it is best to address opposition before it becomes apparent.
This stage is the most challenging stage to identify, because those who will inevitably oppose have done and said nothing. The Israelites knew there would be opposition to the rebuilding effort. Early on we learn that when they first returned to the land, “fear was on them because of the peoples of the land” (Ezra 3:3). However, there appears not to be any active resistance or opposition until the second year of their work. The leaders encouraged the people to give sacrifices and offerings in response to this fear, however the fear did not at that time materialize. Rather, the opposition remained dormant. We can imagine the people gradually lulled themselves into a false sense of comfort and slowly began to neglect their initial efforts at fortifying themselves against the fear they had of the people of the land.
We can fortify our leadership and our organizations in this stage when we:
- Recognize Dormancy – Force yourself to be aware that an absence of overt opposition means dormancy of opposition
- Reinforce the Vision – Use this time to fortify your organizational foundation by continually reinforce the vision
- Build Authentic Relationships – Identify influencers and potential power players in and around the organization, build relationships and keep them close
- Pray for Discernment – Seek God’s help in identifying and addressing potential opposition before it arises
Dormancy can easily lead us to assume safety and organizational health. Failure to be aware and address opposition at this stage will allow it to germinate and take root.
2. Responding to Infiltration
A few years ago I bought my first house and had to plant grass seed and grow my lawn from scratch. My father’s advice on how to maintain a healthy green lawn was similar to his basketball advice. He suggested something to be effect of, “The best defense against weeds is healthy grass… So fertilize often! But you still have to pull out the weeds”. When we find ourselves with infiltrating opposition within our ranks we must respond with both fertilizer and week pulling. Fertilizer in leadership happens when we:
- Maintain Vision Redundancy: Never stop promoting, clarifying and reinforcing the vision. A mentor of mine once said, “keep speaking your vision until you want to throw up in your mouth… Only then are you saying it enough.”
- Cultivate Relationships Throughout the Organization: Strong relationships across all levels of the organization are the best fertilizer against the weeds of opposition.
- Ensure Complete Alignment: It is often said that “the enemy of the great is the good.” In Ezra 4 we see that the leaders refused the assistance of the people of the land (a seemingly good thing) because they were not aligned. The mission was to rebuild the temple their God, Jehovah. They refused to allow anyone who didn’t share their reverence and devotion to be involved.
- Focus on the Issue Not the Person: At this point the issue may be misalignment and not a character issue. Clarify the difference. Care for the person individually while addressing the issue. This kind of leadership is extremely difficult, however, if done well it engenders the trust of all involved including the one in opposition. The result can be a resolution to the opposition and strengthened relationships.
3. Responding to Discouragement
Fertilizer alone is not enough to ensure your lawn is healthy. It is only part of the equation. We must pull out weeds as soon as they become apparent. Inevitably, weeds that are ignored produce seeds that spread their destruction extensively. The goal is to remove the weeds all the way down to the root with a little damage as possible to the lawn. Organizational weeds must be dealt with strategically and precisely. If opposition progresses from infiltration to active discouragement of the mission, we enter a crisis in leadership and we must act wisely and decisively. Here are a few suggestions for addressing leadership weeds at this stage:
- Unwavering Vision: The temptation may arise to compromise on the vision for the sake of appeasement. We can permit compromise on many things, but never on the vision. If we allow vision degradation at all, we open the door to its complete annihilation. Of course, if the vision isn’t solid and vetted by wise counsel, holding to it is foolish and abhorrent anyways.
- Address it Immediately: It will not get better on its own. It will grow, spread and multiply very fast. Hesitation at this stage can have devastating ramifications.
- Surgical Extraction: Deal with the specific details of the opposition. Don’t allow anything to remain. However if we aren’t precise we will impact healthy people nearby. You don’t remove 10 square feet of lawn to deal with a single weed. We shouldn’t shut down a whole team because of the opposition of a single person.
- Focus on the Root: It is tempting to address simply what is visible. But if we only address the the surface of an issue and leave the root untouched, the opposition will return immediately. We must take the time to understand and address the full extent of the opposition or we will pay for it later. In the Ezra narrative we read nothing of how the leadership responded to the discouragement, fear mongering and frustration that occurred (4:5-6). Perhaps this is why the opposition lasted nearly a century.
4. Responding to Confrontation
Eventually the opposition reaches full out confrontation. At this stage things get ugly and those who set themselves up as adversaries to the mission at this stage resort to out right manipulation, deception, as well as what ever social and political pressures they can leverage. At this point relationships often can not be salvaged and a leader must engage in damage control to ensure the mission isn’t permanently thwarted.
Even the greatest leaders will face this sort of opposition. In fact, one could argue that the greater the mission and vision the more likely opposition will progress to this stage. Consider Winston Churchill standing against the evil intentions of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in World War II. Civil Right activistd in the American south faced vilification and vitriol in the crusade for equality. Jesus Christ himself faced confrontational opposition that led to His crucifixion. We can assume that as leaders, we will face this stage of opposition as well. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this stage of opposition:
- Record Everything: One of the best ways to beat confrontation is to have a record of the facts. Manipulation is very difficult when the facts are clear. When the adversaries in Ezra resort to sending a false report to the king about the intentions and scope of the mission, there is a record in the king’s notes documenting that the prior King had commissioned the work. As a leader we must take meticulous notes to be able to refute manipulative opposition at this stage.
- Outlast The Adversaries: Sometimes this stage becomes a battle of will. One of my mentors, when faced with opposition, frequently says, “You can outlast anyone if you want to!” If the mission is worthy, stand firm and endure to the end.
- Maintain Your Integrity: whatever happens, we must never give into the temptation to bend our own values and principles when facing opposition. If we lose our integrity it will set our leadership back far further than what the adversaries are seeking to accomplish. A leader without integrity is not worth following.
- Play the Political Game: While “playing politics” has a relatively negative connotation, there is nothing wrong with leveraging the connections a leader has to advance the mission. If we aren’t willing to do so, we run the risk of being steamrolled by those who oppose is and are politically astute.
- Win the War Over the Battle: Remember that the mission and vision we are leading is the thing that matters above all. At times it may be worth losing a single battle to win the bigger war.
If we were to summarize this all into a couple of principles they would be this: Anticipate opposition, focus on the foundation and respond immediately.