Louis C.K. and the Cortez Problem

There is a story (probably apocryphal) that the comedian Louis C.K., burns his jokes, his stand-up material, and his writing after successfully delivering it at the end of each year.

This story reads like a corollary to the idea (popularized through the constant repeating of the alleged actions of the explorer Hernando Cortez upon arriving in the New World) of burning the boats on the beach.

This idea of creative (or not-so-creative) destruction, as a motivator to either exploring further (because there is nowhere else to go) or rebuilding (because everything you built before is destroyed), can be scary for some.

Even for those who believe that they’ve already burned the boats…and the jokes.

What’s never talked about is developing the will and the courage to look at what you have accomplished in the past (i.e. a successful negotiation, a big project, a positive relationship) and ask the two following questions:

What about this could be better than it is now?

Who here will have the courage to change in order to make this thing better?

Having the will to destroy what’s already been created in the pursuit of a better future is the first step toward realizing that better future.

Calling for a Reckoning

This post may not apply to you, but consider it a warning:

It doesn’t matter how well-meaning you are.

It doesn’t matter how intentional you are.

It doesn’t matter if, after saying what you said, you respond to another person by saying “Well, you have to understand, that wasn’t what I meant.”

It doesn’t matter if the room and audience you said it in front of, applauded when they heard it because it resonated with them.

It doesn’t matter how much you think you were really talking about something else.

When you publicly recommend a reckoning for transgressions that have been long publicly litigated and litigated to a conclusion that merely “is” (rather than a conclusion that may be considered “just” by any modern conception of resolution), then you might as well bring in the heavy equipment.

Because, invariably, you are going to have to oversee the digging of multiple graves.

Be careful when demanding a reckoning to get to justice.

Dissatisfaction Times Vision Times First Steps Must Be Greater Than the Resistance

The equation that drives change is simple:

Dissatisfaction times Vision times First Steps must be greater than the Resistance to the impact of all three combined or else change efforts falter.

There are plenty of dissatisfied people in your workplace, your work group, or even just your organization.

There are people who insist that providing negative feedback is the only way to encourage organizational growth and they provide it liberally.

There are people who have been dissatisfied for years in your organization; who have made brief, or even faltering, attempts at change, but have been stymied and have now surrendered.

There are people inside your organization who claim they are dissatisfied, but who are mimicking the sounds of dissatisfaction as a political power move to angle for a better position at the organizational table.

There are people with vision in your workplace, your work group, and your organization. But this vision is hazy, or they are easily distracted by the next “hot” leadership initiatives, or their vision can be compromised with just a little more money or promotion.

There are people who take first steps and attend training, workshops, and seminars.

They read books and articles, combing the internet for advice and guidance about how to overcome the organizational ennui that holds back change.

There are people who take the same first steps, but their enthusiasm doesn’t go anywhere.

They stop at memorizing the “how-to” listicle and when trying to apply the emotional jujitsu against the resistance in their organizations, they experience limited success.

But these elements, dissatisfaction, vision, and first steps, must be greater than the sum of the organizational resistance to them. Or else, the changes that you are seeking inside of your organization, your work group, or even the team that is inside your sphere of influence, won’t happen.

The resistance to change is pernicious, persistent, and it never gives up. The resistance to change is sneaky and sly and sometimes comes in the form of well-meaning people and situations that appear as though they are helping your cause of change when in reality they are hurting it.

No great change happens without conflict. And no great conflict can happen without the resistance being overcome.

And if you think that it can, then you are bound to wind up stuck in the same place of dissatisfaction where you initially began your change journey.

There Are Easy Solutions to Complicated Problems

The two most difficult roadblocks to success in resolving hard problems are the presence of real trade-offs and considerations of power.

Most complicated problems and difficult conflicts have simple solutions. We often confuse what we believe is a hard solution with a complicated one. What makes solutions to hard problems not easy are the presence of trade-offs (scare resources in scare environments) and power.

In a world of scarce resources (the two scarcest being time and attention these days…even more than money) the trade-offs that must be made to create the space for solutions to your most pressing conflicts can seem insurmountable.

Here are a few (of many) trade-offs. Each one can either represent a zero-sum trade-off or an even exchange trade-off:

Conflict or Apathy

Attention or Ignorance

Awareness or Ennui

Momentum or Slowness

Going Along or Resisting

Reassurances or Courage

Change or Status Quo

Focused or Distracted

Power is the consideration behind most forms of fear. Either a lack of power or power focused in an area that doesn’t benefit getting to a solution. That power is often cloaked in reassurances and comes with a healthy dose of resistance.

We often confuse easy with simple in our own minds. Easy solutions to conflicts usually involve the kinds of solutions that favor whatever trade-off benefits us and validates our perspective.

Easy solutions also preserve our power (maintaining the status quo), or grow our power in each conflict situation. Hard solutions take away or diminish our power, as well as go against whatever trade-off we’d like to have honored.

What makes solutions hard to simple problems is that we are often blind to what is hard, and are aware of what is easy.

Be sure that you are making trade-offs you can live with, in a search for complicated solutions to hard problems.

Boundaries of “No”

In a conflict, boundaries are overrun with impunity.

Emotional boundaries.

Ethical boundaries.

Psychological boundaries.

When boundaries are overrun, feelings of betrayal and hurt automatically follow because when we have our boundaries overrun, we recognize that the other party has misused and damaged our trust.

The number one word to maintain boundaries is the word “no.”

The problem, of course, is not the obvious overrunning of boundaries. We can say “no” directly and without guilt in these situations.

We are comfortable with that process.

The problem arises when there is seepage through a series of moral and ethical decisions that initially appear to be right, but ultimately turn out to be wrong.

Saying “no” in these situations doesn’t often happen because preservation of personal pride, selfish ego, and other concerns becomes more paramount than the re-establishing of sinking boundaries.

No matter.

“No” is “no.”

But learn when—and where—to use it.

Getting Wisdom From There to Here

The thing about getting to the resolution of a conflict situation is that it is a long road, from the initiation of a conflict to a resolution of a conflict.

And since it’s a long road, the bumps, the twists and the turns are what interests us as spectators. Those of us in the audience are here to witness the journey, not the outcome.

Except: When all the audience is interested in hearing about—or giving their limited attention to—is a boiled down summation of the process, with a list of steps for how to get to end and be done, then there is little about experiencing (or explaining) the moments along the road that can hold the audience’s interest.

The path of conflict requires those of us who have been along the path to provide wisdom—and not shortcuts—to encourage and inspire people to walk the same path. And to stick with walking it when the outcome seems in doubt.

The bumps along the road include opportunities to attain the following traits and skills (in alphabetical order):




Deep competence

Emotional Intelligence




Indomitable Spirit



Satisfaction (from a job well done)




There will always be adversity. You will always have conflicts, trials, and tribulations. Be of good cheer, and show others the path.

Because there ain’t no app, shortcut, or listicle, for getting the wisdom from walking the path.

What’s on Offer

The thing that’s on offer—the thing that’s being negotiated—is rarely the thing that we are fighting over.

Our conflicts rarely get close to the core truth of the issues needing to be resolved, which is why management of a recurring conflict situation is a better posture toward conflict than one of trying to persist in getting to a resolution.

The thing that we are fighting over—the thing that should be on offer—must be sold, managed, persuaded, and packaged for other people’s consumption in the way that they want it to be addressed.

Not the way you want it to be addressed.

This core truth is what unites marketing and conflict management. Human beings like being persuaded, marketed to, and talked to, in very specific ways, and if you violate conventions in the pursuit of getting to a deeper truth, you run several risks, but the biggest ones are as follows:

Human beings like being persuaded, marketed to, and talked to, in very specific ways. And if you violate stated (and unstated) social, moral, ethical, and philosophical conventions in the pursuit of getting to a deeper truth, you run several risks, but the biggest ones are as follows:

Being unheard.

Being ignored.

Being unfairly (or fairly) maligned.

Being marginalized when another more persuasive party comes along.

The answer to the question of “What’s on offer?” is the equally compelling question “What’s the truth of what we are fighting over?”

Adding Value

Value is a loaded term.

  • What do you value?
  • Why do you value it?
  • What does the person next to you value?
  • Why do they value what they value?

When we aren’t curious about the answers to those questions, we stymie (and in some cases, block totally) our efforts to manage conflicts effectively.

We also stymie (and in some cases, block totally) our efforts to connect with others through the process of conflict.

Both acts—the management and the connection—matter more for getting to an outcome that you want due to embarking upon the process of conflict than anything else you might do.

By the way, managing values-based conflicts is hard (think the Israelis and the Palestinians, or the IRA and the British) but it is not impossible—if you unload the term value and ask some serious questions.

And then respect, and act on, the answers.

What is the Work

Generating the courage to confront someone else’s bad behavior is tough.

But it’s not the work.

Creating a plan to confront someone’s bad behavior, rather than confronting and hoping that the act of doing so will be enough to create the change you want, is difficult.

But it’s not the work.

Confronting the person who has behaved badly, executing your plan, and then watching their reactions—and responding accordingly—is hard.

But it’s not the work.

All those actions are part of the process of getting to the goal of growing our courage to confront bad behavior.

The process is not the work.

The work is going through the process, getting to the goal (your goal, not the goal of the other party), getting knowledge from that experience, integrating that learning into what your actions, behaviors, and responses will be the next time a similar situation arises in the future, and then letting the moment go.

That’s the work.

By the way, the work is the thing that’s always on the line. Not us.