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Leaders in Conflict: Competative Orientation in the Structural Change Model

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Leaders in Conflict: Competitive Orientation in the Structural Change Model

Paul Olsen

Teacher's College

Columbia University


The question concerning the conflict in existence between my battalion commander and the other company commanders of his unit have troubled me since I changed command on 10 May 2007. I had hoped to make sense of why he behaved and lead in the manner that he did, but I have been unable to reconcile the leadership style or his personality when I compare it to my own or the personalities of the other company commanders. According to the dual concern model (Blake & Mouton, 1964; Fillery, 1975; Rahim, 1983, 1986; Thomas, 1976) implies that conflict style is determined by two independent variables of self-concern and other-concern. Pruitt and Carnevale (1993) define conflict style as the manner in which a person most commonly deals with conflict. I had assumed he exhibited those directive and micromanaging behaviors due to the complex, ambiguous, high stress environment of Baghdad, Iraq following the Samarra bombings of February 2006. This is consistent with a person who exhibits a high-degree of self-concern and seeks to resolve conflicts through contending and problem solving instead of employing yielding or avoiding strategies.

Although company commanders and battalion task organization changed several times, the low level of mutual trust, respect and confidence between the leader and the subordinates remained constant due to the battalion commander's autocratic style and desire to control a situation. LTC Archer's conflict resolution style remained remarkably consistent and took on the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy during the deployment, validating Deutsch's Crude Law of Social Relations (1973). Deutsch assumes that if we understand the effects of a process, we have knowledge of what conditions facilitate that process and the conditions affect the constructive or destructive resolution of a conflict. In the case of LTC Archer, his competitive orientation and autocratic leadership style resulted in poor communication, increased power distance between himself and his leaders, and a general lack of trust toward the Soldiers and leaders of his battalion.

LTC Archer was a conscientious and ethically motivated officer who often expressed his frustration with the seemingly impenetrable, inter-related motives and often contradictory information that typified the ethnic conflict between the Sunni and Shia tribal cultures that inhabited his battalion's area of operations. This complex and intractable conflict created a high degree of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) in an officer who was normally able to influence others through physical presence and sheer force of will. In an effort to bring some measure of control and structure to an otherwise chaotic situation, he implemented a very rigid leadership style that was exemplified by top-down planning, attention to minor details, and restrictive command and control of his subordinate leaders. This example of displacement was not well received by his own subordinate leaders, who viewed his actions as an attempt to undermine their authority and autonomy. Additionally, LTC Archer's subordinate leaders perceived that their battalion commander did not trust them and would not support them in a crisis situation. This destructive dynamic was most apparent during sustained combat operations in the ethnically mixed district of Al-Doura, Baghdad during the first week of May 2006. The events that unfolded over the next 96 hours provided a snapshot of the conflict that the battalion faced both in terms of an armed conflict between an elusive, adaptive insurgent force and the inter-personal conflict the battalion leadership had with their battalion commander during the prosecution of this operation.

I had recently assumed command of an infantry rifle company that had transitioned to a motorized infantry role upon arrival in Baghdad during November 2005. The other company commanders were all senior to me in terms of experience and age, the majority of them had been in command since the unit was activated in October 2004. The senior non-commissioned officers of my new company were also experienced and had all served within the battalion since its initial formation; most were combat veterans of either Iraq or Afghanistan. This organization developed a high level of cohesion or crosscut structural strength (Coleman, 1957) due to the shared bonds of Army Values, shared hardships, performance orientation, and well-disciplined aggression. However, LTC Archer had not previously deployed to a combat theater and often relied on his own peacekeeping experience to Bosnia instead of the combat experience of his subordinate leaders. Many of the Soldiers and leaders in the battalion felt that LTC Archer distrusted his subordinate leaders and minimized the experience and accomplishments of his combat veterans. This psychological state of distrust and hostility had developed prior to the deployment as the subordinates viewed LTC Archer's actions as threats to their own image of adequacy (Coleman, 1997; Felson, 1982). The overall perception of the battalion commander was related to me in a negative light and contributed to the structural change conflict spiral within the battalion. The previous company commander, CPT Irish, had made his dislike of the battalion commander no secret to me during our combined change of command inventories and orientation rides through Al-Doura. The contentious conflict between the battalion commander and CPT Irish had also increased the company's cohesiveness (Dion, 1979; Ryen & Kahn, 1975; Worchel & Norvell, 1980) to the point where LTC Archer became the company's scapegoat.

Command Climate and Interpersonal Conflict

My sense of unease about the battalion commander were confirmed during my first commander's update as I realized that none of the commanders would voice an opinion that contradicted LTC Archer' viewpoint. I had never seen an example of yielding or avoidance through inaction (Pruitt & Kim, 2004) among a group of officers during my service in the Army. I questioned several of the officers and non-commissioned officers about this phenomenon, only to be told that the battalion commander rarely changed his mind once he had settled on a course of action. Simply put, LTC Archer believed that he alone had the answer to the problem, distrusted others, and through



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