The Practice of Leadership in the Midst of Controversy

Approximate Read Time: ~8 minutes

Image by AIDavis on Pixabay

by Tom Klaus

In 2009 I set out to earn a PhD in Organizational Leadership, in part because it would give me the training, skills, and opportunity to research and study the cultural conflict over adolescent sexual and reproductive health in public schools. My interest was related to the trauma of being in the center of a Culture War controversy for several years. I had helped to develop a teen pregnancy prevention program in the early 1990s that caught the attention of the national press and then went almost immediately into national replication.

From California to New York and Minnesota to Texas I was travelling, setting up programs, training facilitators, speaking to conferences, organizations, parents, school boards, and, frankly, ducking and dodging a fair bit. Because of my work, I was verbally attacked in public meetings, stalked, threatened, and, on one occasion, physically assaulted.

My doctoral studies gave me the opportunity to understand more fully how any of that could happen. What did I learn? Simply put, I was just another well-intended person caught on the frontline of a Culture War that had been ongoing for at least 100 years.

Of course, I learned more than that one thing. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to use this space to share four insights I gained from the research about how people who practice leadership today can help manage controversy, prevent it from exploding into conflict, and even turndown the heat in the Culture War we are experiencing today. For the research wonks, I’ll mention that I conducted a qualitative grounded theory study, guided by Charmaz’ principles, that included semi-structured interviews with 35 leaders in organizations which have historically been at the forefront of the sex ed conflicts. Saturation was achieved at the 23rd interview. Participants were recruited through snowball sampling and represented the ideological extremes from “far left” to “far right.” I loved doing the interviews and learned so much from each person.

As I worked through the interviews and analysis, an image began to emerge that seemed to describe their experience as a whole. It was a powerful mental image which has stayed with me for over a decade now as I’ve continued to think about the cycle of intractable conflict over sex ed and other Culture War issues. The image is a bit like a classic Monty Python cartoon.

In a study about intractable conflict, it was ironic that this enduring image included such a peaceful, tranquil setting.

Still, it did then, and still does, pull together the findings and themes of this study in a way that is useful. It helps us make sense of the leadership experience of individuals in sexual health organizations then and, today, of leaders caught up in any one of the many culture war issues in the United States. I was able to describe that experience in this model of a repeating pattern of intractable conflict.

When I decided to undertake this study, it was with the hope of creating a model for developing more effective leaders of sexual health organizations. By “effective” I meant able to be more successful in advocating for and winning in the national dialogue over sexuality education. Among the leaders I interviewed I did not expect to find such weariness with the conflict and a universal desire to break the pattern.

While I expected to find that the intractable conflict did impact leadership in sexual health organizations, I did not expect it to be so dominant in the practice of leadership. The nature of intractable conflicts is that they are not easily resolved or even managed. They can take suck the life, soul, and passion out of those practicing leadership, if unchecked.

What did I hope would come from this study? That the people practicing leadership in organizations on the frontline of the cultural conflict on sex ed, in fact, on any Culture War frontline, would find and choose a different way. I hoped they would more fully understand their motivations to lead. I hoped they would understand how their motivations and leadership actions are impacted by the contentious context in which they work. I had hoped they would be motivated to engage in a new approach.

None of that happened. Instead, we see how the intractable Culture War over sex ed has metastasized into many other areas. Today, though, the Culture War we face is more intense, more divisive, more dangerous than ever before. There is an opportunity to change course, but that window is closing as the conflict spreads and deepens.

Next week I’ll focus on the first of four insights and recommendations emerging from that study which could prop the window open a little longer.

The DAD is happening Wednesday, September 13, 2023, at 4:00 PM Eastern via Zoom. There is no cost…this is a free, complimentary event from Tenacious Change.

This is an interactive event. It is not a seminar or webinar, but a facilitated conversation using both small group, large group, and whiteboard exercises.

Participation will be virtual via Zoom, and to make for a more authentic engagement, we respectfully ask that participants join by audio and video using a computer and earbuds or headset (not by cellphone or tablet). Because we’ll be using a virtual whiteboard, you will need to be on a computer to fully participate.

Seats are limited and pre-registration by August 31 is required. Seating is on a Southwest Airlines basis (first in, first seated).

Registrants will need to do a small amount of prep work prior to the event, beginning on September 1. The prep work is to ensure participants have a common language and understanding of some key ideas related to dialogue. It won’t be heavy…you’ll be asked to watch one or two brief videos and read a couple of blog postings.

Agenda highlights: Introductions, agenda overview, small group conversations in Zoom rooms, large group conversation and debrief on Zoom whiteboard, and closing.

The DAD is scheduled to last 90 minutes. It may end early but it will not go over time. Participants need to plan to attend the full 90 minutes.

If you register, you also need to show up with a desire to listen, hear, learn, and speak without judgment or fear of judgment.

Registration is simple…just click on this link or on the button below and you’ll be taken to a secure registration form.

Tenacious Change IS on Substack

We are still putting some test posts on Substack to get used to working with the site and we invite you to check them out at this link. Please know, though, that at this time we are only re-running recently past posts so we can get accustomed to posting there. We are continuing to learn the formatting but when we are fully ready to start publishing there, we’ll let you know!

Scheduling for Fall 2023 and Winter 2024

We are currently scheduling consultations, workshops, and training events for late summer and early Fall as well as for this upcoming Winter. Visit our website to learn more about everything we offer. You can even download and share this handout with your colleagues. Then schedule a time to talk to us.

Now Available!

Preparing for Controversy in the Fog of (Culture) War does not hold all the answers but it has some that will be helpful. It will help you understand:

  • the difference between a controversy and a conflict
  • the stages of conflict
  • the cycle of intractable conflict
  • the value and importance of Strategic Controversy Management
  • when to intervene so that a controversy does not become a conflict
  • how to slow or stop a controversy, even a conflict, when it occurs

Ninety-one percent (91%) of people completing the evaluation after the live April 2023 seminar told us they felt more confident in their ability to manage controversy as a result of participating in the seminar. Specifically, here’s what they told us how they benefited most from it:

  • Five big steps in controversy management.
  • The rules of civil conversation.
  • Understanding how controversy and conflict are different now from the 90’s and understanding where and how conflict can be deterred.
  • Learning about when more people are likely to “get on-board” with your issue. This helped me think about where my energy and efforts can be used more effectively.
  • Tom’s historical observations about the Culture War and how things have changed…or not changed.
  • The cycle of intractable conflict.

In addition to the video, there are downloadable PDF resources. All are available at no cost, though you will be asked to sign a guest book before accessing the video and downloads.

Click on the link below to see a brief trailer video and then access the full video and all resources.

What Controversy Could be Brewing In Your World?

sticks and pine cones near a coffee maker
Photo by Ron Lach on

Please follow this link (or click on the button below) to complete a brief Google form where you can tell us.

  • What controversies are emerging that you might be able to head off?
  • What controversies are you actually facing at this time?
  • Can you share a situation with us that we can turn into an anonymous “case study” and explore in an upcoming blog?
  • What specific questions do you have about getting prepared for controversy or managing controversy?

Remember, you can also access our video Preparing for Controversy inthe Fog of (Culture) War on our website and we also offer a day-long training event on managing controversy – on-site or online.

%d bloggers like this: