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 / Spring 2010 / Issue 58(originally published by Booz & Company)


Jack’s Right Fight

Staging the Right Fight

Alignment is overrated. If you are a leader who needs to innovate on a grand scale, change essential aspects of your organization, or meet an aggressive target, agreement is only half the answer. The path forward requires a healthy dose of dissent as well. Tension is universal, and the need to harness it productively is deeply human. You need to figure out how to fight the right fight.

A healthy debate has two qualities. First, it must be “right” in the choice of battlefield. Like the fight between Danita and Andre, it should link directly to core, material issues. These issues often involve the viability of the enterprise, or a purpose that goes beyond just hitting the numbers. Second, it must be “right” in the way it is conducted. As Jack Sparr tried to do for his division, someone must design and referee the fight, incorporating both robust competition and candid debate, to bring out the best in the people engaged in it.

Most leaders don’t know how to create a right fight. They gravitate to ineffective battles out of habit, and they therefore reinforce all the dysfunctional, counterproductive aspects of their organization. Or they avoid fights altogether, gaining alignment on the surface but no real ethic of trust or common purpose, because people have never raised their conflicting views and beliefs in the open.

Fortunately, it’s easier than you may think to develop an ethic of constructive conflict in a company. And once you do, leadership can become far more effective.

The story of Jack Sparr is fiction based on an ac­tual case, intended to demonstrate how the right fight can occur in corporate life. Although we’ve changed the names and circumstances to preserve confidentiality, the essentials of this story are true; they demonstrate the human side of what the right fight requires of people: to struggle, to lead, to have setbacks, and to win. Leading a right fight takes real leadership: head, heart, and guts.

Jack was already in a good position to stage the right fight. He had forged a great team. Danita and Andre especially had what it took to succeed — and they both knew it. But they kept their egos under control for the most part and worked well enough together, especially when Jack was in the room.

With more time and a bigger budget, achieving 30 percent sales growth would be easy enough for these two. But with such a tight time frame and such a lim­ited budget, how would they get there? What were the key investments to make to get the jump in revenues? What was the right focus: existing products, the new portable model that looked so promising, rationalizing the sales organization, or reorganizing marketing?

If they pulled it off and met their target, Jack would be in the running to get the top job in the company. Moreover, the new portable unit had the potential to make a difference around the globe. The next few weeks would be tough on all of them, but it would be worth it. They were fighting for a reason. Jack was determined that it would be a fair fight, and there would be something in it for everyone, no matter what the outcome. At the same time, he was looking for a winner — a clean choice, based on the merits.

Trapped by the Wrong Fight

Jack’s one-on-one meeting with Andre came the next day. About 10 minutes into it, Jack was scowling. Andre was having a crisis of confidence, complaining that Danita knew everyone and was likely to get more support for her plan, including the resources to work on it. Somehow, Danita was going to use her popularity to game the system and make it impossible for his ap­proach to get a fair hearing.

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  1. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right (Crown Business, 2004): How to look clearly at the issues facing you, rather than live in a cocoon of comfortable assumptions.
  2. Saj-nicole Joni, The Third Opinion: How Successful Leaders Use Outside Insight to Create Superior Results (Portfolio, 2004): To navigate the complexity of right fights, you need a strong inner circle and advisors who will tell you the unvarnished truth.
  3. Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer, The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value (Harper Business, 2010): A guide to constructive conflict and its benefits.
  4. Zia Khan and Jon Katzenbach, “Are You Killing Enough Ideas?” s+b, Autumn 2009: Informal but candid battles that help companies focus on the right innovations.
  5. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Viking Penguin, 1999): Why you can’t fight right fights without the personal capability of having straightforward conversations.
  6. 12 Angry Men. Directed by Sidney Lumet. MGM, 1957: Classic film about a fight worth fighting.
  7. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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