Leadership Plaid

A number of years ago I read a book where a political advisor, in speaking about a particular politician, commented that “His favorite color is plaid.” It was not meant as a compliment.

I chuckled when I first read that line, as was the author’s intent, but it also stuck in my mind (unlike much of the rest of the book . . .), and over the years I have come to believe that some of the most impactful leadership efforts succeed because they are able to incorporate a range of perspectives, like a finely-woven plaid. Let me use my paternal family tartan as an example of what I am talking about.

The ancient Duncan tartan is primarily composed of shades of blue and green, cool colors that overlap and blend easily. They are in close proximity on the color wheel, much like weaving together the input of team members who are all heading in the same direction, shooting for the same goal, but starting from slightly different perspectives (say, green for an operational viewpoint and blue using a product/program lens).

In addition to the blue and green background, woven throughout the design are thin but obvious lines of black and white. Those are the non-negotiables for which we won’t blend or bend . . . the values or mission from which we will not deviate. These are not the dominant colors of the pattern (we don’t feel the need to beat you over the head with them), but are clearly visible and a critical element in the overall design. And then there is the red. The firey spark from the other side of the color wheel that is none-the-less acknowledged and accommodated throughout the design. In fact, the plaid stands out more for having incorporated this “opposing” color, just as our own efforts become both more striking and appealing to a broader audience for the willingness to incorporate what is, ultimately, a very different but complementary color.

As leaders, we are so often encouraged to carve out a single position and stand strong. Pick one color, black or white or purple, and stick with that. Unfortunately, the situations which with we are faced today can rarely be best answered with a black or white response — at least not if we want to have a lasting impact on the ultimate goal. It takes a blending of perspectives and experiences, layers of color, and an acknowledgement of what each brings to the table, to weave together the design of a lasting solution.

Tartans have survived for centuries and are still going strong. Maybe to solve today’s toughest problems we should all consider weaving together a bit of leadership plaid.

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?