Pistols at Twenty Paces: When Leaders Collide

On this day, back in 1804, Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton during a duel to settle their long-standing feud. The two had been political enemies since 1791 when Burr won a U.S. Senate race, defeating Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler. While their disagreement stemmed from differing opinions on issues of policy, it festered and eventually grew into a public exchange of personal attacks.

After a newspaper published a letter including disparaging remarks from Hamilton, Burr felt he had had enough. He challenged Hamilton to an “affair of honor.” At 7 am the two, along with witnesses, met at a common dueling ground in New Jersey. Following a last minute exchange, the two fired. Hamilton missed. Burr did not. Hamilton died the next day.

Public disagreements between leaders are common, especially in politics. We’ve become used to televised muckraking and character assassinations. But when personality clashes invade the office, they can quickly spin out of control – resulting in hugely detrimental effects on the entire organization. Here are three ways a clash between leaders can wreak throughout the workplace.

Drama displaces productivity.
Hamilton had issues with Burr’s political views. But instead of debating the issues, he publicly campaigned against Burr by citing what he viewed as character flaws. Burr was compelled to retaliate in defense of his honor. As the years wore on, the clash in personalities took center stage, pushing reasonable discourse out of the spotlight.

It’s easy to let a disagreement regarding work turn personal. The problem is that once things cross that line, work starts to slows down (or even comes to a halt) when the two people at odds are involved. It’s even worse when the two protagonists are leaders in the organization. If they make unrealistic demands because their idea didn’t win or start dragging their feet on projects that involve a political rival, the organization can lose momentum and even money. Seemingly petty issues can easily turn into battleground stances that affect the ability to move forward.

Bystanders get impacted.
Because of their positions in the country’s political system, the dispute between Hamilton and Burr created havoc for a large number of people around them. Fellow politicians were forced to take sides. Families, friends and aides were drawn into the debacle, delivering messages between the two parties and their representatives. Citizens following the political scene were treated to a regular diet of dirt as the personality clash played out in the press.

Office clashes are no different. When two leaders find themselves at odds, everyone pays the price. Suddenly every project team involving the two has to navigate the murky waters of their dispute. Coworkers with no stake in the game are forced to deal with an uncomfortable situation. Sadly, even customers often feel the impact.

Both sides lose.
As a result of his feud with Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton took a shot to the stomach and lost his life. Burr didn’t die, but his reputation was shot. Instead of leaving a legacy as one of our country’s great leaders, Burr was labeled a murderer and his political career was cut short.

Regardless of the outcome, there are no “winners” when it comes to workplace feuds based on conflicts of personality between leaders. Jobs can be lost; reputations ruined. At the very least, two people with the ability to produce great results by working together cause division and frustration.

Everyone loves a good bit of gossip and a little water cooler chatter makes for good social dynamics in the office. However, when a clash between two power players goes public, it’s rarely a good thing. Everyone pays the price when leaders face off.

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