Leading by Indirection

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore 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?

[To purchase this book]

Sexual Wrongdoing in the Government Workplace: the Leadership Challenge

Despite all the media coverage, assault and harassment remain too common. There’s a lot that public leaders could be doing.

We’ve seen more than enough sexual assault and harassment cases that were ignored for years or even decades. The Catholic Church scandal. Penn State and, more recently, Baylor University. The National Football League. The military service military academies and the Coast Guard. Some local government fire and police agencies. And that’s just a starter list.
At the National Park Service, complaints of sexual harassment and assault go back over 20 years. In one survey, 75 percent of female park police said they had experienced sexual harassment on the job.

The law on this subject is clear. Sexual assault is a crime. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as many state and local laws, prohibit both sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that employers are strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors if the employee suffers a tangible job detriment.

Given that the law is clear and that the media continue to report on sexual assault scandals, why does this ugly problem persist? Why do so many public-sector leaders seem unable or unwilling to take strong steps when serious allegations are made? And what can be done to turn the situation around?

There are a number of reasons for inaction. A 2014 survey of female firefighters provides some clues. Seventy percent of the survey respondents said they did not report their attacks. The reasons they gave — and some gave more than one — are familiar: emotional trauma and feelings of shame; a belief that their reports wouldn’t be taken seriously; fears of physical reprisal from attackers; and worry that they would lose their jobs.
In other words, fear is a major factor. But there are several others. Interviews with sexual assault victims in government agencies indicate:

• The internal reporting process is murky and often delayed by supervisors who want to keep incidents quiet.
• Some managers dismiss complaints as “simply a misunderstanding” between the supervisor and staff.
• The victim is often required to repeat her story multiple times to different people, which discourages many from pursuing their complaints.
• A hostile work environment exists, where sexist jokes, pornographic displays and unwanted sexual advances are common and ignored by management.
• Leaders want to protect the agency’s reputation, so they take mild steps such as moving the accused to a different unit.

The last factor is especially troubling. The leader may feel that he or she has acted appropriately, but the message to the staff is clear: You can sexually harass someone and get nothing but a mild tap on the wrist.

What can public managers do to prevent and address this ongoing scourge? Training and education are a good start. Henrico County, Va., for example, designed its own online training program on sexual harassment. All supervisors are required to complete it. The course defines sexual harassment, makes the laws on the subject clear and outlines the county’s procedures for handling claims of harassment.

Henrico’s approach emphasizes the importance of setting clear expectations for behaviors. Supervisors can’t complete the course until they get a grade of 100 on the final test. That’s unusual for government training programs, and it’s impressive. Many of the county’s supervisors have praised the training; several have gone through it with their staff members. And, in addition to supervisory training, all of Henrico’s new employees must watch and discuss “Let’s Get Honest,” a creative video about sexual harassment (it’s commercially available).

Another useful informational resource is the International City/County Management Association’s Effective Supervisory Practices: Better Results through Teamwork. Chapter 14 of the book, entitled “Ensuring a harassment-free and respectful workplace,” offers tips on, among other things, writing a harassment policy, responding to complaints, intervening effectively and protecting complainants from retaliation.

Unfortunately, however, information and training aren’t enough. They are helpful to those who want to do the right thing, but the best training program won’t change a hostile work environment or deter sexual predators. What’s needed is strong leadership — not just one leader, but a leadership team that is committed to creating a work culture that values and respects everyone.

Such teams are effective when they make clear that they have zero tolerance for any form of harassment and when they talk with genuine conviction about the importance of a culture built on respect. They should do so at new employee onboarding programs, at retreats with work units, at all-hands meetings. And leadership teams can help create respectful work cultures when they honor supervisors who take strong action against those who harass others.

They also make a difference when they ask groups of middle managers and supervisors what specific steps they’re taking to foster mutual respect — and hold them accountable for making respect a priority. When senior managers ask the same questions of their reports, over and over, people usually realize what their bosses want and care about, and follow suit. And leaders’ efforts gain credibility when they institute 360-degree reviews of managers and supervisors that include pointed questions about exactly what managers are doing to foster respect in their work units.

These kinds of actions will create healthier workplaces. They will help attract talented millennials who won’t put up with any sort of harassment at work. And they will make people proud of their organizations and their leaders.

Pope Francis, Change Agent

There’s a lot that we all can learn about leadership from him.

As a student of leadership and change, I’m intrigued by Pope Francis. He is both “old pope-francisschool” and revolutionary. While maintaining fundamental church teaching (he opposes gay marriage, for example), he also reaches out to gay priests, saying of them, “Who am I to judge?” His recently published encyclical on climate change has been called “radical.” Francis says that we shouldn’t be so “obsessed” with culture-war issues like abortion: “We have to find a new balance.” And he has saved some of his strongest words for a critique of unfettered capitalism: “Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service.”

The pope certainly has his critics among the Catholic clergy. But his popularity around the world is enormous. Many Catholics who take exception with his positions nevertheless say that they love him and find his words and deeds inspiring. How does he do it?

At least part of the answer, I believe, is that Pope Francis uses some very sophisticated change principles that all leaders should consider:

• Honor the past (and present) as you push for change.

• Speak to shared values and shared background.

• “Shrink the change.” That is, make it less daunting; take it in small steps.

• Think politically without appearing political.

• “If you can’t solve a problem as it is, enlarge it” (a quote from Dwight Eisenhower).

• Talk about the change and its impact in human terms.

Excerpts from Francis’ speech to the U.S. Congress last month illustrate many of these principles:

He began by saying, “I am most grateful for addressing this joint session of Congress, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It drew a huge ovation, in part because it so clearly honored both our past and present. It also showed his ability to think politically without appearing so. His gentle demeanor was so sincere, so transparent, that even hard-nosed and often cynical members of Congress seemed touched and delighted by the compliment.

He went on to say that “I, too, am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much, and toward which we share a common responsibility.” (Speak to shared values and shared background.) Francis is from Argentina and spent most of his life there before becoming pope. He had never visited the United States. But he found a simple, authentic way to connect with the members of Congress. And in this one simple sentence he did much more: He gently challenged the members to see their role as much broader than focusing on their states or districts.

Then the pope got personal when he moved to one of his strongest passions, the need to embrace immigrants and refugees: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, and I know that so many of you are also children of immigrants.” (Speak to shared values and shared background.)

In an especially moving and politically savvy part of his talk, Pope Francis went on to discuss four eminent Americans and certain values that they embraced: Abraham Lincoln as a guardian of liberty who showed a love of the common good; Martin Luther King Jr., who gave all Americans the possibility to dream of equal rights; Dorothy Day, a tireless crusader for social justice; and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who promoted peace between peoples and religions.

Francis noted that these individuals “shaped fundamental values that endure forever in the spirit of the American people. These values support a people through any crisis or conflict.” (Speak to shared values and shared background; talk about the change and its impact in human terms.) In a few sentences, Francis took core American values — liberty, equality, justice, freedom of religion — and put a personal face on them. He also made a subtle suggestion: that the nation has faced and addressed huge challenges in the past, so we must have the courage to face and deal with today’s challenges. This is an example of “shrinking the change,” framing it in a way that it doesn’t appear overwhelming.

Finally, in his efforts to build the church Francis effectively uses the idea expressed by Eisenhower: “If you can’t solve a problem as it is, enlarge it.” Ike realized that certain issues can only be understood and addressed when seen as part of something larger. As the president of a Catholic institution noted, Francis “is connecting people to things that are timeless, fundamental truths.” He wants a church that is more positive, that accepts people as they are and addresses them in a loving and welcoming manner. This “big tent” approach is encouraging more people to join the church and creating enormous excitement and pride among millions of Catholics. Most priests and other Catholic officials who disagree with Francis on certain issues probably share the goal of a church that grows.

Time will tell how much impact the pope makes. He’s already accomplished one enormous change: getting hundreds of millions of Catholics and others to take a new look at an ancient institution. This pope has something to teach us about leadership and change.

What Legacy of Leadership Will You Leave?

Nurturing the next generation of leaders is one of the best things you can do for your organization.

On April 13, 1888, Alfred Nobel picked up a French newspaper and saw a headline announcing that he had just died. He didn’t find the error amusing (it was his brother who had passed away). But when he continued reading and saw the text of his own obituary, it left him despondent. It began: Le marchand de la mort est mort (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite.

Over the next few years, Nobel reflected on how he wanted to be remembered, and decided to change his will. When he died in 1896 at the age of 63, the public was amazed to learn that he had designated over 90 percent of his considerable fortune to the creation of a series of prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind” in such areas as chemistry, physics, literature, medicine and peace. The first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901.

Fortunately, none of us is likely to read our own obituary. But it’s worth pondering the question: How do you want to be remembered? Or, more to the point of these columns, how do you want people to remember you as a leader and manager?

I’ve asked some of my students that question and their answers vary:

“I want to be remembered for my creativity.”

“I want people to recall how much I cared about the agency and its mission.”

“What’s most important to me are the programs I created and their impact on others.”

Here’s another way to consider your legacy at work: Who have you helped to become a future leader? In today’s wildly chaotic organizational environment, it’s often very difficult to see the difference we have made at the end of a day (or a month or a year). But leaders can make a huge difference in the lives of the people they work with, and helping someone develop into a strong manager and leader is both visible and highly satisfying. Leaders who see part of their role as being a coach, mentor and teacher can have a profound impact on the people around them.

When I began teaching, a colleague befriended me and allowed me to sit in on some of his classes. He was (and is) a gifted teacher. Using humor, creative exercises and the example of his own behavior, he helped people try out approaches that they never had considered before. I was eager to learn from him, and asked him to observe my classes and give me feedback.

Once, when I asked him why a particular class was going poorly, he observed me teaching for a few hours and then offered this thought: “Russ, you reminded me of a doctor who caught his patient’s disease.” He was aware that some of the students had come into class with a negative, skeptical mindset. Rather than responding by maintaining a positive attitude, he saw me descending into the negativity around me. And the way he captured that dynamic — “catching a patient’s disease” — stayed with me for years. He taught without trying to, through the power of his example and insights.

Some time ago, an editor for the New York Times wrote a column about recent Nobel Prize winners. The editor had called to congratulate them and talk about their accomplishments. He then posed one question: “What helped you get where you are today?” The most frequent response? “There was a teacher.” Not necessarily a teacher in the formal sense, but there was someone in most of their lives who became a mentor and took a special interest in them. The Nobel recipients described a person who saw special potential in them: a talent, a passion, an unusual ability that they hadn’t seen in themselves. And their mentors pushed and prodded and found ways to bring out their best.

Those mentors can look back and take enormous satisfaction in the legacy they helped create. I think Alfred Nobel would approve.

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The Perils of Tunnel-Vision Leadership

The leadership fight at the University of Virginia is a powerful example of why so many change efforts fail.

Pop quiz. What do the following have in common?

• The new director of a large state agency initiated a visioning process two months after taking over. She told her staff, “I’ve had very good success using this in my previous management roles and am excited to use it to help this agency move forward.” Six months later, after strong employee pushback, she asked her deputy why there was so little enthusiasm for the visioning initiative. His response: “This is the third visioning exercise we’ve had in two years; the other two didn’t go anywhere, and nobody expects this one to either.”

• A federal agency dealt with a budget shortfall by doing a cost-benefit analysis of its regional offices. Its Alaska office proved to be the least efficient, and the agency announced it would close that office. The agency’s leaders hadn’t bothered to communicate with Ted Stevens, one of Alaska’s senators at the time who happened to be chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, or with Alaska’s House member, Don Young. Twenty-four hours after announcing the decision, the agency was forced to reverse course and maintain the Alaska office.

• After winning election, a new governor named four senior members of his campaign team to lead important state agencies. They worked hard to implement the governor’s agenda for change. Like the governor, they had little confidence that their civil servants were up to the job, and they brought in numerous consultants and new staff to lead change initiatives. After two frustrating years, all four agency leaders had left state government, convinced that they were torpedoed by careerists determined to “wait ’em out.”

If your answer is that each of these involved failed attempts at change, you’re correct. But why did they fail? I believe a lack of “situational awareness” is to blame. This term, often used by the military and homeland-security professionals, refers to a person’s ability to integrate input from a variety of sources in order to form a clear understanding of the environment and plan future actions.

Why does situational awareness matter? In short, leaders who lack situational awareness usually fall far short of their goals. And when one of your goals is to lead a major change effort, poor situational awareness can be fatal. Here’s a classic recent example:

On June 10, 2012, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors announced that UVA President Teresa Sullivan had resigned. The primary reason initially offered: “philosophical differences.”

University faculty and alumni were stunned. Sullivan was well regarded by most faculty and numerous alumni. The university wasn’t in any sort of a crisis. So, why was Sullivan, UVA’s first female president, forced to resign after less than two years on the job? Helen Dragas, rector (chair) of the board, soon offered additional explanations–a need for bold change, for “strategic dynamism,” the importance of getting into online education. None of it was convincing.

Then came some leaked emails and off-the-record comments from university insiders, all of it damning. Sullivan had received only one informal performance review prior to her firing (which included the comment that she was a “good, not great president”). The board had never given her any warning of major discontent. And it turned out that the board had never met as a body to make the firing decision; Dragas had garnered the votes in one-on-one talks with individual board members.

All of this led to a firestorm of protest from faculty, alumni, wealthy donors and elected officials. On June 26, the board reversed itself and reinstated Sullivan.

Some people thought the matter was settled. But, this past December, UVA was put on warning by an accrediting panel that said the board may have violated governance rules in attempting to force Sullivan out. And UVA found itself back in the headlines last month, when a Washington Post article documented continuing tensions between Dragas and Sullivan, including the fact that the rector had given Sullivan a list of 65 goals to accomplish by the end of this school year!

Why do intelligent, accomplished people make colossal mistakes, such as firing a respected leader without a meeting of the board, without first giving the leader a clear message that she was in trouble, without providing stakeholders and the public with a credible rationale? Why would an experienced leader like Helen Dragas attempt to micromanage the president of an institution that continues to be one of the jewels of public higher education?

There are many theories floating around to explain these mysteries, but I believe the UVA fiasco was primarily about a leader who has no understanding of situational awareness. Dragas may well see herself as engaging in a righteous fight to save UVA’s excellence. Let’s assume the best of intentions. The way she and her board supporters have acted on their concerns, however, reflects extraordinary tunnel vision. Like the three examples in our pop quiz, Dragas and some leaders on the board paid no attention to the organization’s culture. They didn’t learn how change works at their institution, nor did they check in with key organizational stakeholders to share their change plans and get reactions. They all lacked situational awareness.

Every leader can develop situational awareness. It’s not a sophisticated skill set. Rather, it requires an openness to a variety of perspectives from internal and external stakeholders, an understanding of the organization’s culture and recent history, and a willingness to change plans based on these insights. Maintaining good situational awareness is critical to effective leadership.