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Tortorella Leadership Series: Part III

Examining the role of conflict with Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella

by Alison Lukan @AlisonL /

This is the third part of a series of articles exploring the concepts of leadership with Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella. We talked about what leadership is, how you develop it in players and coaches, and the progression of the Jackets' leaders themselves. You can read Part II HERE

It's a natural reaction to bristle at the thought of conflict. In sports in particular, reports of disagreement within a team can spin off questions about "what's wrong?" or "can both sides still work together?"

But for head coach John Tortorella, conflict is an essential tool of building a team that, instead of breaking in the face of adversity, can weather the ups and downs of their jobs in the world of hockey.

"This is the most interesting thing for me in coaching," Tortorella said. "It's when you get into the one-on-one situations, and there's honesty. Usually when there's honesty, there's conflict. I'm anxious to see how (players) react."

Tortorella's approach lines up with one touted by noted leadership author, Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni's popular 2002 book, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" outlined the major obstacles a team faces on the path to becoming effective in reaching their goals.


Some of the first obstacles Lencioni lists is "fear of conflict," which means team members interact with "false harmony" instead of allowing for constructive, sometimes passionate, debate.

If a team can work through their fear of being honest with one another and debating the right path forward through conflict, they are that much closer to achieving, as Lencioni describes, commitment, accountability and, ultimately, results.

With 50 wins last season and their first playoff berth in three years, the Jackets seem on their way to becoming the kind of effective team Lencioni defines.

"I thought our team took such a huge step as far as the mental part of the game as far as saying what was on their mind," Tortorella said. "And I said what was on my mind. I think we've come to an understanding. You never know in human beings in stressful emotional situations what's going to happen, but you learn so much from it." 


After getting to know his players last season, Tortorella was ready this year to dig in with this Jackets team and find ways to get to that place of honesty.

"I know, when I have a meeting, (I'm looking to learn from the player) are you coming at me, are you going to back off, are you going to take it?" Tortorella said. "I'm ready to go ten different directions if I have to based on how the player goes off it. I think you find out a tremendous amount about that person in that situation one-on-one." 

Tortorella doesn't always see conflict just in a meeting with a singular player. He prefers to have conversations in a group setting. He's not afraid to say in front of a player's peers what he would say to them one-on-one. In fact, sometimes that's where the magic happens.

"It turns the room into a pretty emotional room sometimes," Tortorella said. "Because I've had it happen to me when I go at that guy and that guy may not like what I said in front of the team, and that guy may come at me… but I've had it happen so many times, a little bit because of my style, because I'm looking to kind of provoke that a bit so we get some communication."

But don't believe that Tortorella is going to push for conflict for conflict's sake. The tantamount goal remains total honesty in communicating. If guys don't want to engage in "conflict," the head coach is fine with that.

"I've made a ton of mistakes in doing it the wrong way," Tortorella said. "You have to sift through all this stuff here and figure out what's going to work for Nick Foligno? And what's going to work for Cam (Atkinson)? You have to constantly go through this every day. Every meeting I have, I always self-evaluate what was good and what was bad.

"Sometimes you can't have all the answers right away until you see what happens. But you have a pretty good gut when you know you've had a good meeting with the team, or a good meeting with the player. That's how you continue to evolve as a leader."

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