Picking Your Hill


As a leader, it is likely that you have “issues” brought to your attention nearly every day, and it is up to you to determine how to respond. One the one hand, if you make everything a crisis, over time your staff and board will start to respond as if nothing is a crisis (the boy who cried wolf syndrome). On the other hand, if you don’t give critical situations any more time and attention than you would standard day-to-day activities, you are likely to be blindsided when change occurs (head in the sand syndrome). So where is the balance point?

In situations like this, I believe it comes down to picking your battles . . . or as a friend of mine has been known to ask, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” Okay, maybe not literally (although some days it may feel like it), but that question does help me think through how much time and effort I choose to put into a specific situation — and how flexible I can be in accommodating various possible outcomes.

In my experience, internal and external stakeholders will regularly try to convince you that you should pick their battles . . . that you should die on their hill. And they can be pretty squeaky and persistent with their pleas. It’s their hill, but it might not be yours.

My hills are tied to our mission, vision and values and our strategic goals, not the crisis du jour. I can be sympathetic to someone else’s hill. I can try to help them to the extent that it does not distract me from my primary focus. I can offer perspectives and options they might not have considered to help them reach their goal. But there are limits to the energy I will put into someone else’s hill.

More often than not, the hills I pick aren’t necessarily the loudest or the flashiest. They usually aren’t the ones that a lot of people are congregated on, because our mission vision values and strategic goals are unique to our organization. As a result, our “non-negotiables” aren’t going to be the same as another organization’s.

One we pick a hill, two seemingly contradictory things happen. First, we can be incredibly flexible and creative in how we reach a goal. My organization has been known to go under, over, around or through an obstacle to reach intended outcome, taking the perspective that “no” really just means “not yet”. At the same time, there are usually key principles, issues, or values where we will not bend. Those things are our line in the sand, the spot from which we will not retreat. In my experience, it takes a balance of both of these variables to hold the hill.

Clarity in your mission, vision, values and strategic goals are key in navigating the terrain. Do you know where your hills are?

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