Harry Nelson

Deciding when to Lead, Part II: Two Personal Examples

When to lead: Two Examples

My friend Tuli Skaist asked me to offer some examples as case studies to elaborate on my post a few weeks ago about when is the right time to lead and, alternatively, when it’s better to let someone else do so. I thought it would be useful to share a few personal examples.

First, a case where I got it wrong and said “yes” when I should have said “no”: I was asked to sit on a committee for a local nonprofit organization’s annual event. While the organization does important work and while the people who asked me were old friends, it is not an orrganization or cause that I am passionate about – at all. My friends’ request that I get involved was purely about our personal connection, an appeal based on loyalty to them. They assured me that it wouldn’t be a big commitment, just attending a few meetings and reaching out to my network to participate in the event. My head told me to say “no” to them, based on my lack of interest. But saying no is “hard,” so I acceded and agreed to participate.

Almost from the beginning, I knew it was a mistake. I couldn’t make the initial meeting in person, so I participated by phone. The hour that I spent on their phone call was rambling, meandering and exhausting me. I was bored out of my mind. My mind kept wandering. I couldn’t wait for it to end. Over the next few months, there were a series of other meetings and requests to make calls, send emails, and help support the event. Even though each request by itself was small, they demanded time that I just didn’t have.

I had put myself into a pickle: I could either do the tasks they were asking, resenting them for the imposition, or I could just ignore their requests, and feel guilty instead. I responded by putting their “to do” list out at the bottom of my long list, which meant defaulting to the “ignore mode.” At the outset, I had told myself that they weren’t asking much, but learned the hard way that being asked for anything is an imposition when I had no personal passion for the organization. It became clear to me as the event approached that, at some point, the message of my lack of interest was received, because I noticed I was taken off the email list.

In the ensuing months, we still haven’t spoken about it. Whether they’ll admit it or not, I’m sure the radio silence is accompanied by some measure of disappointment in me for letting them down. I am annoyed at myself that I said “yes” when I clearly should have said “no.” I feel bad that I let them down. Nobody is coming away from the situation feeling good, and our personal relationships certainly weren’t strengthened by this. This was a classic case where my agreement to participate in their committee was entirely based on loyalty, but as a busy person, that just wasn’t enough. The right thing to do was to say no.

Second, a situation where I think I got it right in saying “yes”: In 2012, I was approached by members of a board of directors on which I sit about taking over as chair of the board. In this case, I was heavily invested in the success of the organization, but I didn’t feel anywhere close to ready for the time and responsibility it would entail. I was in the thick of a challenging period in my professional life dealing with the future of our law firm, and considering the possibility of making a move. I was working crazy hours, dreaming of a day where I had the team I needed around me at work to make life manageable. Beyond my personal constraints, there were board members who I thought would be more effective in some key ways, particularly organizational fundraising.

I offered to recruit a new board chair, with the idea that I could use my willingness to serve in the future as leverage to ensure that there would be a clear exit point a few years away for our first choice. With the blessing of the CEO, I went to have a drink with the board member. I might be ambivalent, so I assured him that he would be able to count on my support in getting things done. I told him that I was open to succeeding him in three years.

The meeting didn’t go as planned. His response was, essentially, that he was not going to do it, and that I was the right person for the job. At this point, I was in a quandary. I had put myself squarely inside the process of finding the next board chair, and didn’t have a backup candidate. After speaking with my wife, I decided that even though I hadn’t wanted the job, it was an organization we were committed to. In contrast to my first example, where I was not interested in the cause itself. I was genuinely inspired by the lead professional and shared the vision of where the organization was heading. I agreed to take over.

It turned out to be every bit as time-consuming as I imagined., Yet somehow, evening meetings and long hours don’t feel like a burden. I’ve foregone fun events occasionally for meetings we needed to have, without any resentment or frustration. I’ve forged strong working relationships with the professional and lay leadership, and it’s felt like a privilege to play a part in advancing the organization.

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I hope these examples are helpful in expanding on my previous post about deciding when to lead. I’d love to hear about your decision-making process and other ideas about making good choices about leadership.

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