Leading by Indirection**

[Adapted from Russ’ new book, coming out in September 2021: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. more info]

I love to sail. As any decent sailor knows, you can’t sail directly into the wind, even if that’s where your ultimate destination lies. But you can usually get there by “tacking” back and forth, learning how to read the currents and breezes, keeping a firm hand on the tiller and paying attention to timing.

Leaders often face the same dilemma. They may have a clear goal in mind, only to learn that they’re flying into the wind. Powerful constituents oppose you. Perhaps your staff doesn’t buy in, or there’s no funding for the idea. And sometimes the stars seem aligned, and then a major event occurs and everything else is put on the back burner. These speed bumps occur even more often during the kind of disruptive times that we’re experiencing today. There are myriad reasons why change requires leaders to be flexible, think creatively, and seek other ways to achieve their goal. In short, they need to learn the art of “leading by indirection.” Here’s an example:

Karen, a social services manager, led a division that dealt with child sexual abuse. This is a terrible and complex issue, often involving other organizations like police, health departments, and prosecutors. She met with leaders of those agencies and they all agreed they should work more closely together, but nothing was changing. The leaders were focused on other demands. Since her direct approach wasn’t working, Karen took a different route.  

She did her homework and learned of a collaboration model that was working in other communities. It involved co-locating professionals from agencies that spend the most time on child sexual abuse. Housing these professionals in the same space helps build relationships, which leads to much more collaboration and information sharing. Now that she had a proven model to offer, could she convince the agency leaders to try it?

Rather than meet with the agency leaders again, she found middle managers in the three key agencies who worked on child sex abuse issues and shared her concern about the need for more collaboration. They liked the co-location model. Then she learned about a co-location training session being offered in another state. The three managers agreed to attend and planned to meet at the session. Karen suggested they drive there together. “Let’s save some gas, the meals will be on me. It’ll be a fun road trip.” Even though two of the three didn’t know each other, they agreed. That road trip became a team-building activity. They had time to learn about each other outside of their work responsibilities. And the trip back from the training gave them several hours to compare notes on what they’d learned and how to move forward.

Long story short: The middle managers sold their agency directors on the co-location idea, they tried it on a pilot basis, and continued it as they saw success. More information sharing meant more kids were being rescued from terrible situations and more perpetrators getting caught. Karen had learned the art of leading by indirection.

 

Those who learn how to lead indirectly are usually good at: 

  • Demonstrating situational awareness
  • Being firm on the goal, flexible on the approach
  • Reading people’s readiness
  • Timing, and “ripening”
  • Being pragmatic

When Karen’s initial efforts toward collaboration went nowhere, she considered the situation. The agency directors weren’t responding, so she was flexible and looked for a different strategy. Courting the managers made sense; they were already eager for collaboration and just needed someone to offer a way to get started. Urging the managers to drive together allowed their ideas to “ripen,” which was critical. And Karen was very pragmatic. She’d originally hoped to try the model for one year. When two of the agency directors balked, she suggested they first pilot the idea for several months, and they agreed. Karen understood the importance of timing.

            Karen was a middle manager; she didn’t have the authority to direct the other managers to work with her. But even leaders who have that authority often need to lead indirectly. Here’s an example from the Hebrew Bible:

In the book of Exodus, when the Pharaoh finally allows the enslaved Israelites to leave,  God is ready to bring the people to the promised land. But God doesn’t lead them in that direction. Au contraire, God leads the people south, away from the promised land. Why? The direct route is occupied by a powerful tribe. God says, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.” God is reading the situation as well as the people’s readiness for battle. The timing is wrong, God is flexible and changes course.

People trying to speak out against wrongdoing often lead by indirection when the direct route hasn’t worked. A classic example has to do with unidentified flying objects. A small, secret Pentagon office has tracked reported sightings of UFOs since 2007. Numerous sightings were deemed credible, meaning there was video evidence showing the objects moving at remarkable speeds and making sudden changes in ways that had never seen before and couldn’t be explained. The office’s director, Luis Elizondo, studied the videos and interviewed several Navy pilots who’d witnessed these phenomena and were concerned that the government wasn’t doing enough to investigate. He urged his superiors to reveal the office’s existence, arguing that UFOs are real, we’re studying them because they have national security implications, the public and Congress should know. Nobody listened to him.

So in the fall of 2017 he resigned and then told the New York Times about the office and its evidence of UFOs. The Times investigated the allegations and then printed the story. It prompted enormous public interest in the country and on Capitol Hill. The government finally acknowledged the office’s existence, and members of Congress began demanding more information about UFOs. (“60 Minutes” ran a segment about this on May 16, 2021, and the Times story is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/16/us/politics/pentagon-program-ufo-harry-reid.html.)

It’s important to note that leading by indirection as I’m describing it isn’t unethical. These leaders weren’t trying to manipulate people, nor were they hiding their true intentions. They had a clear goal and were open about it, the direct path to their goal didn’t work, so like good sailors they tacked.

Let’s take another look at some characteristics of people who lead indirectly. As mentioned above, they are good at: 

  • Demonstrating situational awareness
  • Being firm on the goal, flexible on the approach
  • Reading people’s readiness
  • Timing, and “ripening”
  • Being pragmatic

What about you? How would you assess yourself on these five characteristics? Which ones would you like to improve?

** Adapted from Russ’ forthcoming book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah can Teach Us About Leading Change.