Conflict management lessons from President Obama

On 10 December, 2009, President Barak Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and gave the Laureate address in Oslo, Norway. I listened with interest for many reasons, one of which was because it was the Peace Prize awarded to the President of a nation at war.  That’s a bit challenging to get my mind around. Still, without making any judgments about the prize committee’s decision, I’m prepared to take conflict management lessons from all kinds of places. I was curious. That’s the necessary precondition to learning. I was listening. That’s the second precondition. So, what did I learn?

Lessons from the newest Nobel Laureate:

President Obama said it was important to have principles to follow when dealing with rogues. Below each of his principles, I’ve applied his idea to conflict management .

I.   Adhering to standards isolates those who don’t meet them and strengthens those who do.

When someone on the team is, in your opinion, slacking or acting disengaged from work, it’s tempting to feel that you are being penalized for showing up on time and completing your work. After all, that person is getting away with goofing off, so it isn’t much incentive for you to work hard. You might get into a conflict about what you see as the unfair work distribution. President Obama said the other person may have low standards, but he or she is also isolated. Once you lower your standards to his or her level, you are keeping that person company and ending that isolation. Keeping your standards high keeps you strong.

II.   Uphold values when it’s easy and when it’s hard to do.

The values we hold at work come from several sources. First, the organization’s values are stated in the vision, mission and values statements. Also significant are the values of your discipline or your specific work. For example, if you are certified by a professional association, you are bound to follow the values of your profession or trade. If you are or choose to be within a distinct community, you share the values of that community. Finally, and just as important, are your individual values, such as your beliefs and worldview. Sometimes, these values are in conflict with each other. When that happens, you may find you are in conflict with yourself and/or with your team. Then, it is hard to know what values to prioritize. President Obama said that it is in such circumstances that knowing and understanding your values and their place in the hierarchy of values is most important. When there’s conflict is the time to know your values and let them guide you.

III. Build a just and lasting peace.

That sounds good; what does it mean and how would I do it? Perhaps it means peace that isn’t bullt on the oppression of others. It also connotes a peace that is courageous, even where there is fear. It would be nice to have no fear, but that means having nothing to be afraid of. We don’t yet live in that world. Perhaps it will be enough to have courage when afraid. Perhaps that would build a just and lasting peace.

How is that to be done? President Obama had some suggestions:

  1. Use alternatives that change behaviour with real enforcement for breaches.
  2. Don’t stand by when there is injustice that can be spoken against.
  3. Stand with allies who also support your values, moral imagination and sense of possibility.
  4. Find hope in situations and pursue that hope or there will be status quo.
  5. Value human dignity.
  6. Know what ‘ought to be’ and seek to enact it.
  7. What actions you do, you must accept when others do them.
  8. To achieve resolution requires accepting responsibility and perhaps making sacrifices.
  9. Reject either- or choices and look to creative options for having justice for everyone.


Things happen between people and conflict can result. You are the first in line for those who can problem solve. Do I agree with the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s choice for 2009? Irrelevant. It’s a done deal. Instead, let’s take the lessons we can get from the recipient. Conflict management lessons can come from anywhere.


Photo: Pete Souza, licensed by Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Nobel Peace Prize 2009 to Barack H. Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”.


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