Shoulding Where You Shouldn’t

It’s a tricky proposition for leaders . . . determining the line between opinions, assumptions, shoulds and decisions. Most leaders receive vasts amount of data every day, and we often have to move quickly from information to decision. The path we take — consciously or unconsciously — has a lot to do with whether we are shoulding where we shouldn’t.

The ladder of inference, developed by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and popularized by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, highlights how we filter information, and assign meaning to that information based on our experience. For example, after receiving the initial information we determine whether something is relevant or important to the given situation. That is your opinion. Nothing wrong with that. We all do it.

The next step is the tricky part. Do you seek out additional information or different perspectives to challenge your opinion, or do you automatically make assumptions about what you think should happen based on those (possibly faulty) opinions? Making decisions based on filtered data, mixed with our beliefs and past experiences, is like short-hand for the brain. The only problem is, jumping from point A to point E leaves a lot of room for error.

Breaking free from the ladder of inference doesn’t necessarily have to take a lot of time, it simply requires you to consciously consider where you are making leaps from facts to shoulds. For example, perhaps you have a strong belief that being late is rude and unprofessional. A colleague shows up 15 minutes late for an important meeting with no explanation (those are the facts). Do you automatically jump to “this person is rude and unprofessional and therefore I cannot trust him or her to manage this important project” (sliding straight up the ladder from the facts to a should, or in this case a shouldn’t), or do you first pause to explore why the person was late. Perhaps there was a terrible accident on the way to work, or a critical phone call related to the project came in just as the meeting was scheduled to start. Would this information change your opinion on what you should do?

It is amazing how many times even a small amount of additional information can disrupt your mental shorthand and lead to better decisions.

Amid the pressure to move quickly from data to decision, do you have the discipline to stop and consider whether your assumptions are accurate, or if someone else might have a different — and equally important — perspective? A few extra moments may be all it takes to make sure you aren’t shoulding where you shouldn’t.

The Hardest Thing for a Leader To Do . . .

Originally Published September 2, 2014


And by that, I don’t mean there is nothing that is hard for a leader to do. Rather, I have observed (okay, and experienced) that consciously stepping back and doing nothing in a specific situation can be incredibly hard for many leaders. We are wired to make things happen, to strategize, to fix problems . . . but sometimes sitting back and letting a situation play itself out a bit can be the best strategy.

Consciously doing nothing is not the same as not making a decision — it is a deliberate decision, presumably with a rationale and expected outcome. It takes patience, and often times is not all that popular with people who look to you to “do something” when a challenge arises. Taking action is easier. Even if it’s the wrong action, at least people can see you’re trying to impact the situation.  Apparent lack of action on the part of a leader may prompt people to a) wonder if you really understand the magnitude of a situation; b) think you’re indecisive; c) think you are “weak”; or d) all of the above and probably several other letters to boot! 

Making a choice to do nothing takes confidence, rather thick skin, and the willingness to take a long view. That said, there are several situations where doing nothing may be the best course of action. For example, there may be times where individuals, either internal or external to your organization, try press you to address an issue that is actually not yours to solve.  Tempting as it may be, especially if you have an opinion about the preferred course of action, this is a time to take a “not my circus, not my monkeys” perspective. I’m confident you have plenty of your own challenges to address. If someone tries to get you to take on theirs, be pleasant, be encouraging, but beyond that, do nothing.

There are also cases where there is an internal issue that presents a growth opportunity for one of your staff members. Perhaps you could solve the issue more quickly however, much like a parent choosing not to step in when their child experiences a conflict, doing nothing can lead to more self-reliant staff. Or maybe you choose to do nothing to, in effect, call someone’s bluff, or force action on the part of another party. Doing nothing should not be your most frequently used strategy (if it is, you might want to revisit whether you really are just indecisive!), but used sparingly it can be extremely impactful.

I also find that people confuse “apparent lack of action” with doing nothing. Often there is much a leader is doing behind the scenes to positively impact a situation without it being visible to others — much like a duck who appears to glide effortlessly across the water, but is actually paddling like crazy under the surface. This is more common, and from my perspective much easier, than actually not responding — because you know you’re doing something, even if others don’t.

Ironically, the simple fact that most of us aren’t wired to do nothing can actually increase the impact of this response.  People take notice. They think about what they should do if you’re not going to do anything, which sometimes can lead to the best solution to a situation.

Tough call, but hey, no one said leadership would be easy!

Maximize Your Minutes

In a 40-hour work week, you have 2400 minutes at your disposal to accomplish whatever it is you deem most important. If you’re like most leaders, you are pulled in multiple directions by people who all feel their projects should be at the top of your priority list. Trying to respond to all, or even most, of those competing demands would take double, or even triple, the time you have at your disposal (which quickly consumes your “non-work minutes”). So how do you decide where to spend your precious time?

1. Start with your people. Marcus Buckingham’s research has found that when leaders spend as little as 15 minutes each week meeting individually with their direct reports to talk about near-term work (what are you focusing on this week and how can I help you), employee productivity and engagement both go up. If you have eight direct reports, that’s 120 minutes — two hours — of time invested per week that will save you time and energy in the long run. Productive, engaged employees make everything else easier. Start with your people.

2. Next consider items requiring big picture thinking. To prioritize your to-do list, Daniel Goleman suggests categorizing tasks into three types of focus — on yourself, others, and the larger world. He noted, “a failure to focus inward leaves you rudderless, a failure to focus on others renders you clueless, and a failure to focus outward may leave you blindsided.” What perspectives or variables do you need to ponder that may impact a decision before you? What is happening in the larger world — in your industry or others — that you need to factor into your considerations? These aren’t items you can check off a to-do list, but they are the kind of considerations that can dramatically increase a leader’s impact. Invest time in big picture thinking.

3. Focus on those things that only you can do. Delegate, delegate, delegate. You are correct, someone else probably won’t complete a task exactly the way you would. So help them, guide them, but let them gain the skills so you can direct your energy to things that no one else can do. Whether that is working with your board . . . serving on an important external committee . . . building strategic relationships . . . don’t undermine the time and attention you can devote to these leadership tasks by doing work that can be completed by others.

4. Then and only then consider comfortable, fun and mindless. When things feel uncertain, overwhelming and hard, it is easy to “lose track of time” on tasks we feel competent at (and someone else could probably do), something we really enjoy (but isn’t really part of our current role), or endlessly clicking on some title that caught our attention on email. I’m not suggesting there isn’t a time and place for these things, but they shouldn’t be postponing items 1 – 3 on this list.

Want to increase your impact as a leader? Maximize your minutes.

Quit Playing the Zero Sum Game

Either/or is a false choice. Quit buying into it.

The assumption that the only way for one side/organization/person to win is for someone else to lose is a zero sum game that puts self-imposed limits on you and your people. That kind of short-term, scarcity mentality falsely assumes that the “rules of the game” will always stay the the same . . . that there are no opportunities to do things differently. Really?

If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, we should all be clear that the parameters we face are certainly subject to change, and there are opportunities to approach our work in a totally different way.  And that is a good thing. There is no single structure we have to work within, with a finite number of resources and the only way I can gain is for you to lose. If that is your perspective, chances are you have already lost . . . the chance to create something with an impact far beyond today’s standards . . . the opportunity to collaborate with others to create a sum greater than the individual parts . . . the ability to engage your staff in making your “what-ifs” a reality.

Refusing to play a zero sum game doesn’t mean things will be easy, or that they will happen quickly or without hard choices. That’s another fallacy of scarcity thinking . . . that those who are optimistic, who have an abundance mentality, are simply unrealistic dreamers who don’t understand the real risks being faced by the organization. Actually, just the opposite it true. The only way to attain the lofty goals set by the optimist is to be brutally honest about the current reality. So how do you move from zero-sum thinking to a perspective that strives toward more abundant possibilities?

1. Set a clearly defined target. It was hard to misinterpret President Kennedy’s goal to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. There were likely many who had worked in “the system” for years who felt such a lofty vision was impossible, and yet eight years later, that goal was achieved.

2. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted. A whole host of concerns, objections, alternate suggestions, as well as a multitude of competing demands will cry for your attention. Also, don’t be surprised if you get pushback from those operating with the current system who experience the same challenges and frustrations you, but who don’t want to or can’t see a way to change. If you rewrite the rules of engagement, that affects them too. So many ways to get distracted, and yet keeping focused on your target is critical to success.

3. Recognize that set-backs are part of the process. Achieving something new, committing to a win-win, changing calcified systems, are hard things. It takes time and effort and rarely happens in a straight line. Try, learn, adjust and take the next step. Most “big steps forward” happen as a result of an untold number of little steps and quite a few stubbed toes. No, it’s not easy . . . but important goals are worth the effort.

Want to accomplish more for your people, your organization and your mission? Then quit playing the zero sum game.

Say More With Less

I have been called a wordsmith by some and a red pen-wielding copy slasher by others. I’ll gladly claim both.The words we use are critical in communicating a message . . . and most of the time we simply use too many.

An over-abundance of aspiring high-achievers, somewhere along the way, became convinced that big words, lots of qualifiers, and a mind-numbing level of unnecessary explanation and detail somehow made them seem smarter, or at the very least harder to argue with. They were wrong. Simple, focused messages are much more powerful.

The Gettysburg Address was 272 words. It took Lincoln roughly two mintues to deliver, and is widely considered one of the greatest speeches ever made by an American President. 272 words.

There is power in brevity.

People who are not clear on what they want to say tend to ramble, presumably hoping something will stick. Likewise, when a person has a weak argument, there can be a false assumption that the speaker will sound more compelling by using lots of words. Unfortunately, lots of words also increases the likelihood that the listener will miss the main point, instead getting mired down in some irrelevant detail . . . which requires even more words to try to get them back on track. Limiting the length of your communication forces you to identify what is most important.

There is clarity in brevity.

Pascal famously said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time. It is faster and easier to simply dump lots of information on people. It takes real effort to distill down your message to the fewest possible words to make your point. Isn’t your message worth the effort?

Brevity takes time.

Granted, writing and speaking skills come easier for some people than for others. However whether it comes easily or is a hard-won, the ability to communicate effectively is a critical skill for leaders. The most powerful messages, the clearest ones, are succinct and to the point. Yes it takes more time. It’s worth the effort.

Want to say more? Try saying less.

Hearing Through All The Noise

When I step back to consider all the the voices vying for my attention . . . the emails, social media, podcasts, newscasts, publications, seminars, phone calls, meetings and even the occasional snail mail . . . it’s as if Grinch narrator Boris Karloff is in my head booming “Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise!” In 2020 alone, people created 1.7 MB of data every second. Every day, 306.4 billion emails are sent and 500 million tweets are posted.

In the midst of such an onslaught of data, how does one sort through to find the nuggets of information that can move you closer to your goals? A good place to start is to screen out everything that doesn’t fit into one of three buckets: Intentional, Industry, and Interest.


Intentional information requires you to be clear on your goals. What — specifically — are you trying to accomplish? Where do you need new insight . . . from experts, from end users, from unrelated industries that may have tackled a similar challenge? Intentional information is data you seek out, as opposed to getting sidetracked by those who assume they know what you need. Sure, you may occasionally receive an unsolicited email touting just the product/information you need at any given time (which of course, you recognize because you are clear on your goals), but in most cases, you are driving the search for this information.


Industry data allows you to stay up to date on the latest trends or forecasts for your sector. This one has become a bit trickier to distill as companies have become more creative in offering glimpses of the future that they can help you address. (I’m not knocking marketers — that’s my background — just highlighting that there are some really effective ones out there working to meet their goals, not necessarily yours). Find several neutral sources that have a track record of identifying trends, both in your sector as well as business/economy overall.


While this may seem to be the broadest category, like intentional and industry data, information related to your interests should be something you seek out rather than just passively consume. Where would you like to take a deeper dive . . . perhaps related to a current or desired hobby, stress reduction, a trend unrelated to your work that peaks your interest? And it really doesn’t take that much effort on your part. Algothrims will ensure that one source of information will multiply to three or four or more.

The trick to cutting through all the noise, noise, noise noise is to be proactive, rather than reactive. When you know specifically what you are looking for, those messages rise to the top, making it easier to turn down the volume on all the other voices.

The more you are clear, the better you can hear.

Letting Go of Your Picture

We leaders have opinions and preferences. We (hopefully) think a lot about the future. We consider a range of scenarios and how we would respond. And as a result, it is easy to develop pictures in our mind of what we consider to be the best, most logical solution. There is a tendency to become enamored with our pictures. After all, we are smart, we have considered a range of options, and we have envisioned an end result that makes the most sense to us . . . And then one of your senior staff members or trusted advisors (who by the way has followed the same process as you) describes a totally different picture.

Oh . . . wow . . . okay . . . but you really have confidence in your picture. Sure, you want to encourage different perspectives. You know that the best leaders are open to adapting their plans when they gain new information. And yet, you find yourself feeling a bit defensive in support of your original plan. Should your scenario be given primary consideration because of your position or level of experience? Should you seek out evidence that supports your approach or calls other perspectives into question? Does an openness to changing your plan signal uncertainty, or a lack of conviction for your identified preferred path?

This three-part process can reduce the likelihood that you will find yourself in such a leadership quandry:

  • Openly discuss your thoughts, and those of others on the team, early and often.

It is much easier to consider new information and make course corrections in your assumptions along the way, rather than waiting until you have a fully developed picture. Siloed or independent plan development often leads to more entrenched divisions down the road.

  • Make a sincere consideration of contrarian views part of the process.

It is easy to ask someone to “play” devil’s advocate with the goal of discounting them. What if, instead, the team thoughtfully considered how an intelligent individual who also wanted the best for your organization might see things differently? What if you considered the “truth” of a variety of perspectives. How might that change your conversations?

  • Always leave room to improve a plan.

With every plan, you should start with a clear articulation of the end goal, and end with the caveat that, “This is our best thinking with the information we have AND we need to hear from you if you have additional insight that could impact our overall success. That way, if someone does have additional input, they are not saying your plan is “wrong” they are merely helping to make it better.

Listening only to yourself, or people who think like you, provides a false sense of clarity. It tends to make you over-confident and under-prepared for the complex challenges facing leaders today. Are you confident enough in your process to let go of your picture?

Learning to Read the Road Signs

Originally Published March 18, 2015

Some would say this is a tough time to be a leader. Budgets are tight and getting tighter. Those who purchase your services may very well be changing the ground rules on a regular basis. The task of recruiting, and keeping, the best employees is more competitive than ever before. All the signs seem to indicate that the road ahead will be a bumpy one . . . that is, of course, if you take the signs at face value. The best leaders tend to see things a little differently.

Take, for example, an agency that starts down the road to develop a new program. They are excited about the potential, and yet when proposing the program to different funding sources, they consistently hear, “That sounds great, but we aren’t set up to fund a program like that.” At that point, many people see a stop sign. Great idea, but the money just isn’t there. Visionary leaders don’t allow current funding frameworks to derail an opportunity to extend their mission reach. They don’t see the “no” as a stop sign, they see it as a detour sign that simply means “not yet,” and then look for a path around the barrier in the road. It may take a little longer than planned, but more often than not they will find a way to the other side.

Or what about the talented employee who has so much potential, but who is restless in his or her current role? Talk of new titles or salary adjustments seem to do little to spark the employee’s interest, and the supervisor fears there will be an exit sign just over the next hill. The strategic leader, however, takes note of the scenic overlook sign, and invites the employee to pull over and view the panoramic vistas — which might include more flexibility, or stretch projects, or something as simple as helping them identify a sounding board or confidant so they don’t feel like they’re stuck at the end of a path all by themselves. The scenic overlook may include a glimpse of something the agency has never seen before, and the leader brave enough to take a look may see the path that will keep their most promising staff engaged.

And then there is the funder intent on placing “blind curve” signs at every turn. While many organizations would ride their brakes in the wake of such warnings, the nimble leader finds a steady pace that enables them to maneuver the winding road with a minimum of wear and tear on the organizational machine, allowing for quicker acceleration when the road finally straightens out.

So what is the key to seeing the signs that will take you to the high road of effective leadership? First and foremost, wear your mission glasses to minimize the glare of money, or tradition, or someone else’s goals. The sharper the focus on your strategic direction, the easier it is to spot the signs that will lead you astray. When you know exactly where you are going, you are much less likely to be swayed by the colorful billboard promising an exciting attraction just five miles to the east. Mission glasses also help you realize that money isn’t the goal (and when you start chasing the money, it’s amazing how quickly the mission can drift away.) Money, while critical, is a moving target that shifts depending on which way the wind is blowing. It is the mission that keeps you moving forward on the right road. And when the leader is clear on the destination, the entire organization begins to function like a high-performance machine, hugging the road around every curve, and gliding over the bumps that throw others off course.

Tough time to be a leader? It all depends how you read the signs.

Make the Hard Decisions, and Then . . .

One of the challenges of leadership is the need to make hard decisions . . . decisions that are not “people neutral.” Decisions that are good for some people and are at least perceived as being not so good for other people. Decisions that further the overall goals of the organization, but that have a cost to one or more parts of it. Decisions you wrestle with . . . that knot your gut and yet still have to be made. In such cases, members of my leadership team and I remind each other to “make the hard decisions, and then be kinder than you have to be in carrying them out.”

A good leader cares about his or her people. They are not just someone filling a position in an org chart, but rather a living, breathing human . . . with families and hobbies and goals and dreams. And sometimes, a leader has to make a decision that is going to impact all of that in a person’s life. So what does it look like to be “kinder than you need to be” in such situations?

Perhaps there is a committed employee who has been promoted, and it becomes obvious that they are not going to succeed in that role. Do you continue to encourage and guide them, even while you are confident that the role is just not a fit? Do you allow them to stay in the role until they “fail”? Or, is it kinder to find another role in the organization where their gifts and graces are a better match — even if it involves a lower “rank” and salary — where they can ultimately be successful? It may be hard at the time, but more than once I have had an employee ultimately thank me for seeing that a different role was a better fit.

You may have a longtime staff member with whom you need to part company. Having made the decision, however, put yourself in their shoes. Would extending a particular benefit longer than best practice would dictate, or making other unique allowances, make the situation easier for them? Are there other ways you can be kinder than you need to be in the situation? This consideration is less about whether someone “deserves” it and more about the kind of behavior you want to model in your organization.

If you have to make a decision to cut back in one part of the organization so another part can flourish, are you willing to sit down with those impacted and listen to their anger, their fear, their frustration, and acknowledge the pain of the situation? Sure doing so may feel awful. Are you willing to sit in that pain with them to allow them to be seen and heard?

Being kinder than you need to be doesn’t really make hard decisions easier, but it does speak volumes about you as a leader . . . and that type of kindness is contagious. Make the hard decisions, and then be kinder than you need to be in carrying them out.

How to Avoid Hitting the Wall

I was recently asked how one can keep up the necessary pace of leadership while also avoiding hitting “the wall.”  The question brought to mind a quote from Parker Palmer, in his book Let Your Life Speak. His words resonated with me the first time I read them, and have stuck with me over many years. Palmer noted, “Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little!”

Think about it . . . haven’t there been times when you were taking on what seemed to many like “too much,” and yet you remained energized and undaunted by the task at hand? Times when you were in a state of “flow” and completely engaged in and invigorated by a project? When you are leaning into your gifts and graces, you can often work at a pace and intensity that may appear unsustainable to others because you have a deep well to draw from . . . and counterintuitively, maximizing your gifts and graces actually replenishes your “well” even as you are drawing from it.

Conversely, I am guessing you have also been involved with projects that sucked the life out of you. Even thinking about the tasks ahead left you feeling drained and dreading what would be required of you. During those times, were you trying to give what you did not possess . . . perhaps something counter to your natural giftings? Certainly, there are parts of every role that don’t necessarily play to our strengths, but there are things you can do to make sure you are maximizing your leadership impact.

1. Recognize what tasks energize you, and which drain your energy. And then partner with someone whose gifts complement yours . . . perhaps someone who takes great pride in managing the details of a situation if you are a big picture person. You take a weight off your plate, and give someone else’s gifts a chance to shine.

2. Know what re-fuels you. If you are an introvert, maybe it is reading or spending time in nature. For extroverts, it could be carving out regular time to socialize outside of work. Exercise . . . prayer . . . time for reflection . . . competing in sports . . . giving back to others . . . spending time with family and friends . . . What activities allow you to physically and emotionally maintain your equilibrium and/or hit the reset button?

3. Sometimes, it really is just too much. We’re not talking one day here – all of us have days like that. However, when you feel like you are getting buried deeper and deeper with no light at the end of the tunnel, you need to step back, take a deep breath, and then prioritize, delegate, and rest. In spite of how it might feel, the world will not stop spinning if you take a pause before you crash headlong into the wall.

Leadership is hard. The pace can at times be daunting. And you have a choice. Energize, re-fuel, hit pause. Telling yourself you don’t have time for any of those things is also a choice . . . one that often puts you on the fast track to that wall.