Note: the post below is a guest post, an excerpt from the book by Tom Harper I mentioned a few days ago, Leading from the Lion’s Den. I particularly liked this chapter on Proverbs, which addresses the emotional self-regulation essential for leadership.
20. Don’t Argue – Ever! – Proverbs by Tom R. Harper
“Sportsmanship and easygoing methods are all right, but it is the prospect of a hot fight that brings out the crowds.”
– John McGraw, baseball player and manager
The book of Proverbs is not without intriguing contrasts. You’d think a simple truth like “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17) would encourage healthy conflict, friction, and debate, rather than seeking comfort and consensus. On the other hand, earlier in Proverbs, we encounter an apparent contradiction: “It is to a man’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Prov. 20:3). So which is it, engage in debate or refrain from disagreement?
The Bible teaches we should debate without quarreling. Debate and argumentation are opposites, though they both rely on conflict. The former assumes we have the same objective, the latter assumes we’re out to dominate the other. When I argue with you, I want only what I want; when we debate, you and I want the same thing. The skilled leader knows how to turn back an argument to a debate, and to prevent a debate from becoming an argument. He also knows how to handle the slippery reptile called conflict.
Why do so many leaders rely on harsh argumentation? Proverbs reveals the folly of dominating others with words, of establishing authority with anger. The following principles should govern our meetings, relationships, and discussions – indeed, all human interaction.
Someone who sounds right all the time probably isn’t. If a persuasive person monopolizes a meeting, many participants will become quiet and agreeable, but harbor silent resistance. “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).
Control your temper. Robert E. Lee said, “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.” Here are a few verses regarding anger:
• “A hot-tempered man stirs up conflict, but a man slow to anger calms strife” (Proverbs 15:18).
• “Patience is better than power, and controlling one’s temper, than capturing a city” (Proverbs 16:32).
• “The intelligent person restrains his words, and one who keeps a cool head is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27).
• “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man holds it in check” (Proverbs 29:11).
Don’t protect someone from the consequences of his or her anger. “A person with great anger bears the penalty; if you rescue him, you’ll have to do it again” (Proverbs 19:19).
Reconciliation revives and energizes people. “The tongue that heals is a tree of life, but a devious (deceitful) tongue breaks the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).
Cut off arguments before they escalate. “To start a conflict is to release a flood; stop the dispute before it breaks out” (Proverbs 17:14).
Disassociate from chronically angry people as far it depends on you. “Don’t make friends with an angry man, and don’t be a companion of a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25).
Be quiet and take care with every word. “The one who guards his mouth and tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23).
Hold your words as long as you can. “Do you see a man who speaks too soon? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20).
When jealousy enters the ring, the fight’s gone too far. Jealousy is one of the most powerful emotions we humans contend with. It has a more far-reaching effect on us than even anger. “Fury is cruel, and anger is a flood, but who can withstand jealousy?” (Proverbs 27:4)
Don’t let people talk long in meetings. In fact, all communication should be brief or at least broken into chunks. Effusive monologues are often plagued with manipulation, argumentation, pride or dishonesty. Long-windedness can foster resistance and resentment if listeners don’t have a chance to respond along the way. “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).
Be quiet to appear wise. The above verse says it well, and so does this one: “Even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent, discerning, when he seals his lips” (Proverbs 17:28).
Don’t overreact to the leader’s anger. Defensiveness and angry responses only incite those in authority to increase their intensity. “A king’s fury is a messenger of death, but a wise man appeases it. When a king’s face lights up, there is life; his favor is like a cloud with spring rain” (Proverbs 16:14-15). “A king’s rage is like a lion’s roar, but his favor is like dew on the grass” (Proverbs 19:12).
Argumentation is driven by anger; debate, by reason and conviction. The best debaters engage in healthy conflict in pursuit of truth and wisdom. Too many leaders, however, think they’re in the gladiator arena fending off hungry lions.
Leadership Principle #20 (Proverbs)
Purge your meetings of emotional conflict, but encourage healthy debate.
“An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins.” – Pr 29:22 (NIV)