Shades of Gray

White Painted Textured Background With Brush StrokesIt seems far too common these days to find headlines that reflect an apparent lack of ethics in leadership. How does this happen? What has led to what some might consider to be an ethics crisis among leaders? Is it power? . . . ego? . . . a lack of morals? Undoubtedly in some cases, it is one or all of these things. In other cases, however, the issue is not so black and white.

Choices between right and wrong are fairly easy. It’s making choices between two “right” answers that gets a bit trickier . . . where each possible choice reflects a core value of the organization, and a decision has to be made regarding which value should take precedence in a given situation. Suddenly, a leader may be faced with a whole lot of gray.

Should decisions be made in the best interest of . . .

. . . the individual or the organization?

. . . short-term or long-term impact?

. . . responsibility or loyalty?

. . . duty, rights, virtue or relationships?

It all depends on where you are standing, the perspective you choose, as you weigh the options.

When external rules or expectations would direct an organization to take a course of action that would not be in the best interest of a specific individual, what is an organization to do? Look out for the individual and risk some degree of sanction for the organization? Perhaps . . . if you used an individual lens. What if such sanction would impact the organization’s ability to serve other individuals in the future, would that change the decision? Does the degree of harm — to the individual or the organization — factor into the decision? So many shades of gray.

Leaders have to deal, often on a daily basis, with the messy reality of competing demands, pressures, expectations and values. Courses of action that may seem clear in hindsight are often mired in a gray fog at the point a leader must choose a path forward. That is simply the reality of leadership. So how does one make the “best” ethical decision?

  • Clearly articulate organizational values and the predominant perspective the organization will use to guide decision-making. For example, “we will act in ways that sustain the organization for the long term.”
  • Engage in transparent dialog to gain a variety of perspectives. At times, a leader may not even recognize there could be other perspectives to consider. Voicing the dilemma, encouraging feedback, and discussing options can help clarify the path forward.
  • Step back from the issue at hand. When you look at any decision too narrowly it can keep you from considering the full implications of a decision. Ethics can be a slippery slope when you look at individual decisions in isolation.

Know your values and priorities, openly discuss the tough decisions, and look at the big picture. The answer still may not be black and white, but taking these steps can help a leader reduce the shades of gray.

Strong Backs

a determined strong businessman carrying an elephant on his back“Don’t ask for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.”

I’ve seen this quote, and variations thereof, credited to Phillips Brooks, a Jewish Proverb, and St. Augustine. The fact that so many want to lay claim to these words should be some indication of their truth. Leadership is at times a very heavy load. The weight of the responsibility . . . the impact of decisions . . . the lack of a clear path forward . . . can be overwhelming.

Oh what we would give for a lighter load. Sorry, not happening. Not if you are a leader. Far better, instead, to go for a stronger back. How does one build a stronger back? A few suggestions:

  • Rest. Everything is harder when you are tired — physically, mentally or emotionally. And the times you think you can least afford rest are when you need it the most. Have you ever stressed yourself into a knot, only to wake up the next morning with an entirely different perspective? That, my friend, is the curative, back-strengthening power of rest.


  • Talk it out. No one ever said leadership had to happen in isolation. Somehow, challenges seem to grow when they are confined to your head. Have you ever taken a bite of something you didn’t like, and it seemed to get bigger and bigger the more you chewed and you didn’t know how you were ever going to swallow it? Yeah, heavy loads can be like that when you roll them over and over in your mind and don’t share them with anyone. Don’t worry, the ultimate responsibility still lies with you, but sometimes talking it out can bring dilemmas down to size making their weight easier to bear.


  • Minimize distractions. Some people do this by getting outside and enjoying the beauty of the day. For others, prayer or meditation is key. Get away from your email, phone, and to-do list . . . if nothing else close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. The answer to the challenges before you will not out-shout all the other demands of your day. When you get quiet enough to hear that still small voice inside (your smartest and truest voice), you just might be surprised how often you find the peace to stand tall and move forward.


  • Keep at it. One doesn’t build a strong back overnight any more than you can lose weight by eating one healthy meal. It’s a start, yes, but the more you do it, the better the results. This leadership gig is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you want to be in it for the long haul you have to keep doing the things that lead to a stronger back.

The leadership load isn’t going to get any lighter. You can either continually stumble under its weight, or consciously decide to build a stronger back. The choice is yours.

Leadership in a Nutshell


I was recently asked to summarize my personal philosophy on leadership. (Yes, it did occur to me that I have been writing blogs for two years trying to do just that . . . but I think they were looking for the 30 second synopsis.) Like so many things, the more you immerse yourself in the topic, exploring the many layers and variables, the harder it is to feel like you can sum it up in a nutshell. Nonetheless, in an attempt to honor the request, I turned to Max DePree, one of my favorite “common sense” authors on leadership. In Leadership is an Art, he states, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.” Leadership in a nutshell.

Cracking that nut apart just a bit, I see a leader’s first responsibility, defining reality, as a two part process. As noted in last week’s blog, there is the need to define the current reality with brutal honesty, but a leader also has to define, clearly and succinctly, the new reality the organization is working to achieve. These two realities, and the vision to get from point A to point B are a core component of leadership success.

Saying thank you? I have shared my thoughts on that multiple times, but it bears repeating. It. Is. Not. About. You. There is no such thing as a leader without followers. Returning to the wisdom of Max DePree, he notes, “The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body.” Leaders need to both understand and appreciate that fact. Ideas don’t get you anywhere. Only the committed actions of those who are willing to implement those ideas will propel you toward your ultimate destination. And their efforts deserve your thanks . . . sincerely and regularly.

And then there’s that messy stuff in the middle . . . the whole servant and debtor thing. Let’s tackle the debtor aspect first. While I’m assuming you don’t actually owe your organization money, I do think that by accepting a leadership role you become indebted to the organization to leave it better than you found it. And in my experience you don’t get a better outcome by just doing things the way they have always been done. Part of my “debt” to the organization is the responsibility to find new ways to extend our mission reach. How? That’s where the servant concept comes in.

Just because you get people fired up to achieve the vision, that doesn’t mean getting there will be a straight or smooth path. A leader has to serve his or her staff by removing the barriers that impede progress toward the ultimate goal. Maybe that means changing systems and processes. Maybe that means moving people into roles that are a better fit for their gifts and graces. Maybe that means approaching external variables in new and different ways. Whatever the challenges, a leader needs to serve his or her staff by creating the conditions where they have the best opportunity for success.

Defining reality. Saying thanks. Being a servant and a debtor. Leadership in a nutshell.


Recalculating Photo

Navigation systems make me crazy. When I am subjected to them, I argue with them on a regular basis. I tell my sons (to no avail) to look at a map before they take a trip, so they at least have some idea of the route they should be taking rather than just blindly following some electronic voice. Alas, I fear we are training people to willingly relinquish their right to make independent decisions all in the name of convenience. (Think I’m over-reacting? I’ll remind you of that the next time your navigation systems directs you to a dirt road that dead-ends in the middle of no where.)

And it’s not just 20-somethings who are drawn in by the allure of having someone else chart the course for them. It seems I am encountering more and more leaders who claim they have “no choice” but to follow the path laid out for them by some external body. Really?!?

As long as I am driving the car, “recalculating” is always an option. Sure there are plenty of oversight bodies, contractors, other organizations, customers, and even well-intentioned supporters who are more than happy to tell me, sometimes quite emphatically, the route we should be taking. Too often, however, that path serves their purposes, not necessarily those of my organization or those we serve.

Part of being a leader is mapping out the route you will take. Depending on your goals, that may mean choosing an interstate, a small two-lane highway or, much to the consternation of navigation systems, going where there is no road and blazing a new trail. Leadership is all about recalculating. There is no way some little black box (or other external advisor) can automatically factor in all the variables that you need to consider when making a decision for your organization. Navigation systems might be helpful in small spurts — you are hopelessly lost and need to get back to a recognizable road, or are looking for a tiny side street — but for the long haul, it is your responsibility as a leader to chart the course.

When we don’t take the time to consciously choose our preferred route — whether for expediency, or out of fear, or because we think someone else has more expertise — we can end up miles off course without even knowing it. People may say you “have” to do X because of this trend or prediction or new rule. Well, you should respond to the trend or prediction or rule, but in your case Y might be a much better/more efficient/more effective way to get there. Recalculate!

Presumably, you are in a position of leadership because of your ability to make good decisions, because you can assess the landscape before you and identify the best way to reach your destination. Are you really willing to abdicate that responsibility, to go on autopilot, because . . . what . . . it seems easier, like more of a sure bet?

News flash — sure bets seldom are. Maybe it’s time the grab the wheel and start recalculating.

We’re Never Too Old to Need Recess!

businessman slide cropIn our annual employee engagement survey, one of the “red flag” results was the large percentage of staff indicating they go home emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. While this response is consistent with previous surveys — there is no doubt we work in an emotionally exhausting field — we wanted to drill deeper into this response to gain additional insight into how we can support staff as they work to support our struggling youth. We are using three methods to drill deeper: discussions in team meetings, surveys, and a series of focus groups. I lead the focus groups, which are an hour-long discussion with up to eight staff members who voluntarily participate. We have frequently used focus groups as a way for staff to provide input into a decision, or to gain additional information on a specific topic, as was the purpose in this case.

Focus groups provide a wealth of unfiltered feedback — even more so now that staff have experienced that positive things can happen, and negative things don’t happen, as a result of sharing their thoughts. In terms of emotional exhaustion, there were two big take-aways from the focus groups: 1) It’s the little things that make a big difference, and 2) in the words of one of our participants, “We need a recess!”

I love that! We’re never too old to need recess. Maybe it’s not 20 minutes on the playground (although I’m a big proponent of getting up and moving around), but we all benefit from occasionally stepping away from the computer or meeting or problem du jour. Maybe it’s taking a few minutes to chat with some – about something other than work. Maybe it’s taking five minutes for a walk outside or allowing enough time to actually taste your lunch, rather than simply re-fueling.

“Recess” may mean different things to different people, but in my experience as leaders take on more and more responsibility; anything remotely resembling recess seems to get pushed out of their day. And yet, I’m guessing you’ve had the experience of being in the midst of a situation/project/meeting that was sucking the life out of you, and then you receive an unexpected call from a friend or family member that might only take a few minutes but when you returned to the project your entire frame of mind had changed. That’s the power of recess.

What would happen if you announced that at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, everyone in your organization would stop whatever they were doing and do 10 jumping jacks. I timed it . . . it takes less than 15 seconds. Okay, admittedly not much of a recess, but I’m guessing it might be just enough of a distraction bring a smile to staff members faces, and at least for a few minutes provide an antidote for the emotional exhaustion lurking somewhere in those piles on your desk.

It’s time for recess!