The Hard Truth

Hard Truth GrSome days, leadership is just plain hard. And as much as we might like it to be different in those moments when we have to make a decision with no clear path forward, I think it is supposed to be hard. Struggling through the hard stuff is how we learn and grow and gain greater clarity . . . and yes, at times stumble, but ultimately chart a better course. It is shouldering the pushback, the skepticism, the lack of understanding of well-intended people, (including yourself!) while you strive toward the larger vision.

True, this is not the picture of leadership that you typically see highlighted in feature stories that talk about the confident, charismatic stuff of which great leaders are made. The piece that gets left out of the story is that the confidence comes on the other side, once you have worked your way through the tough stuff. So what is a leader to do when firmly wedged between what feels like a rock and a hard place?

  • Walk all the way around the issue. If you think there is only one option, one choice, you just aren’t looking closely enough. Gather input from a cross-section of people. The more clearly you can identify what is going on “underneath” different perspectives, the better you can put things in context.
  • Make the case yourself, out loud, for both perspectives. Things sometimes sound different when you say them out loud than they do in your head, and making both arguments yourself helps minimize the impact of personalities on your consideration.
  • Recognize that “grappling” is part of the process. This is the hard part . . . the lonely inner wrestling about the best decision. It does not make you indecisive or weak or somehow deficit in your capabilities. It means you care enough to put yourself through the wringer as you search for the right choice.
  • Sleep on it. Once you have found a place to land, let it sit. Sleep on it. Yes, I know that you are down to the wire and it feels like you have to come up with an answer right now. Sleep on it. The extra measure of clarity that can come with the light of a new day is well worth a short delay in the final call.

Does knowing these steps make the process of leadership easier? Not really. There will still be plenty of situations where your heart and your head, your trusted advisors, and your short and long-term perspectives will be in conflict. It will be draining and frustrating, and just plain hard. But . . . somehow it helps to know that it is part of the process. That this is how it works. And the potential gain is worth the pain that a leader will endure getting there.

That, my friends, is the hard truth of leadership.

Trying on Shoes

I believe one of the keys to wise leadership is the ability to try on a lot of shoes . . . not all of which will be comfortable. Some may pinch a bit, or have you tottering to maintain your balance. Some will be well-worn and rather tattered with little to no support. Others will be thick and rigid like a ton of bricks. And dozens of others will fall somewhere in between. But the time and effort it takes to walk a mile in someone’s shoes (not a block, a block is easy, we’re talking a mile here) can make all the difference in moving you from “reasonable” . . . “justifiable” decisions to truly impactful ones.

You may make one decision when all you see is a child’s disruptive behavior, and you want that behavior to stop. You may make an entirely different decision when you realize that no one was home to get the child up in the morning, he is basically raising his baby sister, he is scared and hungry, and putting on a tough exterior so no one will know. If you’re going for impact, simply addressing the behavior will do little to truly change the situation.

While it may be easier to empathize with a child, the same concept applies to staff, contractors, partner organizations — you know, those we call “grown-ups.” When one of these individuals acts in a seemingly illogical, from your perspective detrimental, or otherwise aggravating manner, do you insist that they fall in line (after all, you’re the leader, right?!?) or do you dig a bit deeper to see why they are responding as they are?

You’re right. You don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand, to nurse them along until they can get on board. And I’m sure you will have much more time down the line, when your project gets derailed and you have to invest the time to go back and try to re-group, or fill the void left by a partner who decided to walk away. I understand, your shoes are really comfortable. Why should you mess with trying on someone else’s shoes?

Because, hopefully, you’re in this leadership gig for the long haul. And making decisions without taking into consideration other perspectives is short-sighted. That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like every decision you make, but it does mean when you seek first to understand you have a better chance of reaching your ultimate goals.

So how do you know when you need to test drive some new footwear? A good starting point is when you find yourself taking a hard line on something, and aren’t interested in someone else’s opinion. That is usually exactly when you need to take a walk the most. You ultimately may not change your position, and that’s fine. When people know you looked at a situation from their perspective, even if they aren’t thrilled with the ultimate decision, it becomes easier for them to come on board and take the journey with you.

Maybe it’s time you tried on some new shoes.

Faith in the Right Timing

As a person of faith, and a leader in a faith-based organization, I am a big believer in God’s perfect timing. There have been so many examples in my career when I may have been thinking about a particular decision for a long time . . . so what prompted me to act at what turned out to be an opportune moment? I have no answer except to say that something inside me indicated it was the right time to move. Some would probably call that intutition. I like William Wordsworth’s perspective that “Faith is a passionate intuition.”

Please don’t hear me say that I think faith somehow absolves a leader from having to plan and strategize and stress, and at times agonize over decisions. Sorry gang, that’s part of the bargain. (I think God will provide, but I also think He expects us to do our part!) At the same time, I believe there is some degree of comfort in recognizing, as leaders, it’s not about us. Our job is to serve as caretakers of the organization entrusted to us, to leave it better than we found it . . . which means you can’t always go with the safe bet or the most popular option.

Recognizing the right timing requires a degree of wisdom that starts with knowledge, but also requires listening, observation, reflection, questioning, and ultimately, a willingness to go with your gut/intuition/inner-nudging and take the leap. Because here’s the deal, God’s perfect timing usually doesn’t come labeled as such. It take faith.

In our measuring, quantifying, metrics-based world, something as nebulous as “faith that you’ll know when the time is right” may seem like a hard sell. Except for the fact that, it is not an either/or proposition. Faith that you’ll know when the time is right to act does not mean you don’t do your homework, it does not mean that the data is irrevelant, and it doesn’t mean that you’re running off on some lark. You do your homework so you will be prepared when the time comes. Or maybe you are nudged to look at different data, or look at the data differently, than others might. You approach the situation with a different lens or perspective.

And then you are patient. Yes, I know patience a fruit of the Spirit . . . it’s a virtue . . . and frankly — at least for me — it is the toughest part of the whole equation. But I have learned the hard way that even the “perfect” solution, when implemented at the wrong time (which usually means my impatient timing) will fall flat. The solution? Take a deep breath and have faith. If you listen to your gut, you’ll know when the time is right.

The Trouble with Lines in the Sand

We’ve all encountered leaders who quickly and frequently draw lines in the sand. The minute an apparent conflict/issue/opportunity arises, they vigorously proclaim something along the lines of “We absolutely will/will not (fill in the blank)” . . . “Under no circumstances will we . . .” You get the picture.

The trouble with reactionary lines in the sand is that they are an emotional, rather than thoughtful response, that usually have more to do with the illusion of control than a realistic strategy. Sure, there may be a momentary rush in defiantly and idealistically staking out a position . . . a rush that can quickly be deflated when held up to the tedium of details and feasibilities. (Note: Constructing a suitably pithy response in your head is fine, as long as it stays in your head . . . but that’s a blog for another day.)

How much better is it for a leader to ask for an explanation of an alternate perspective, to gain a better understanding why someone is proposing a particular course of action, rather than make assumptions that the other person just doesn’t know what he or she is talking about? Giving someone a chance to make their case, and taking your time to draw a conclusion, doesn’t make you weak or non-committal . . . it makes you smart. You ultimately may not agree with the alternate viewpoint, or you may think it omits critical variables, but if that is the case then be grateful that you are better prepared to respond in a thorough, thoughtful manner. Or, once you understand the person’s end target, you may be able to offer an alternate solution that can meet both of your goals. Even after going through this process, you may end up exactly where you started. That’s okay. By allowing someone to be heard, and considering a variety of viewpoints, it will be easier to gain buy-in and minimize resistance for your ultimate decision.

“Drawing a line in the sand” is really a rather strange metaphor when you think about it. From a literal standpoint, can you think of a line less likely to be sustained over time? One big wave or high tide will wash away even the most fervently drawn line when it is placed on ever-shifting sand. (Although, some of the pronouncements I have heard from those quick to take a stand have faded away almost as quickly.) I prefer to draw my lines on solid ground. Does it take longer? Yep. It takes more effort, too. But it is also more likely to stand the test of time.

Strategic Fortitude


Yes, I made that term up several years ago, actually for a presentation I was giving at a national conference. I continue to use it because I think it creates an image in people’s mind of what it really takes to succeed in the volatile environments that so many of us face today. The term also seems to prompt people to stand up a little straighter as if to say, “I can do that!”

Webster defines fortitude as “Strength of mind that allows one to endure adversity with courage.” Building on that, my definition of strategic fortitude is “A clearly defined target or passion that allows one to endure adversity with courage.” Strategic fortitude helps you cut through the clutter and noise we all face every day, to identify the right path for your organization based on your goals and non-negotiables. It makes it easier to keep your focus on the right things for your organization, which impacts your decision-making and prevents mission drift. It allows you to made offensive decisions rather than defensive ones, which move you toward your mission much more quickly.

There will be many well-meaning people who will offer you advice along the way. But if they don’t understand your goals, (which are likely different from theirs) they may be leading you down a rabbit trail that will only distract you from your actual target. One of the tricks to this is that strategic fortitude only works when you have clarity and specificity in terms of where you want to go. If your goal is broadly stated, such as “we’re going to help kids”, there are so many ways to reach that goal that your attention will likely be pulled in multiple directions, which only dilutes your ultimate impact. When you focus your passion . . . we will be the Mayo Clinic of trauma and attachment . . . then decision-making becomes easier. So when someone says you should start a school for children with autism because the need is great and funding is available, you can acknowledge the need and also recognize it is not the direction your organization is headed and so you don’t expend energy pursuing the possibility, even though you could probably do it well, because it’s not your mission.

Will people think you’re being short-sighted or narrow-minded? Probably. Will people look at you and shake their head, as if you just don’t know what you’re doing? Quite likely. There is a natural tendency to push back against people who are doing things differently, I supposed because it might call into question the status quo. But seriously, who aspires to reach the status quo?!?

Change is hard, pushback is a given (sorry, no sugar-coating here), but if the end goal is worth it, then you press on. In a strange sort of way, there is a peace and a confidence that comes with a clearly defined target or passion that allows you to endure adversity with courage. And when you get to that place, my friends, you have found strategic fortitude.

Knowing when to get into the weeds

Explorer in the weeds

Years ago, I was at an outdoor retreat with members our leadership team, and the individual leading our team-building activities asked that all 8 or 9 of us stand on a small plastic table cloth. The object of the activity was to flip the table cloth over without any of us stepping off the plastic. As you can imagine with that many leaders on a single small square, there were a variety of suggestions of how to accomplish the task. We squished. We wiggled. We debated. And finally, when it seemed we were making no progress, I decided it was time to get into the weeds. (Have I mentioned that patience is not my strong suit?!?)

I squatted down amongst everyone’s feet to get a better look at the options and then came up with a strategy. One-by-one, I would grab a foot, pick it up, flip a corner of the tablecloth, and put the foot back down. Although there were a few times I was pretty sure I was going to end up with someone landing on my head, we eventually managed to completely flip the table cloth without anyone’s feet moving off the plastic.

Some months later, one of my colleagues on the team commented that the activity was a good example of how I lead . . . when I couldn’t figure out a solution from where I was standing, I got down closer to the action. Yes, there was a risk that I would be stepped on, but I knew that was the best way to move the team forward. To this day, I consider that one of the best compliments I have ever received regarding my leadership style.

Sometimes, you simply have to get into the weeds to help your team find a solution, or so you can gain a dose of reality from the troops on the ground. How many times have you received an edict, or directive from “on high” (be that an external regulator, a state agency, fill in the blank) that probably made a lot of sense to the individual sitting in some distant office writing it, but was impossible to implement because of a variable that was not considered? Hitting a little closer to home, what is the likelihood that you have been the author of such an grand plan (written from the comfort of your office) and your staff were the ones shaking their heads because of something that was obvious to them, but you neglected to account for? Guilty as charged. But hopefully I’ve learned.

Seriously, how hard is it to take the time to look at a project from the perspective of those who will be impacted by it? They are likely to have insights that you will never have. We have tried to do this through Process Review Committees, where the staff closest to an issue make recommendations for a solution, with director level staff considering the recommendations, but not creating them. We’ve had “What in the World Were They Thinking” meetings, where staff could ask questions about a parts of a change initiative that didn’t make sense to them. We’ve held focus groups prior to making tough decisions that would affect staff, to get their input on things they would like us to consider when making the decisions.

Do we get it right every time? Of course not . . . but one thing I’ve learned . . . when staff recognize that you are trying to consider an issue from all angles, they are much more likely to give you a measure of grace when you miss something. They are much more likely to let you grab their foot and move it to a different place on the plastic square, if they are confident that you have their best interests in mind. And they don’t gain that confidence by what you say. They gain it when they occasionally see you hanging out in the weeds.