leadership lane-assist

In my previous Leadership Lane Assist series post, I offered this experience-tested conviction: Rules are last and least for leadership success. Organizational effectiveness depends far more upon culture than rules. Corollary to that principle is this:


Resist the tendency to allow policies to become a substitute for judgment.


Don’t get me wrong. Policies are necessary, helpful. They promote fairness, consistency. They mitigate ambiguity and caprice. But policies have a dark side.

Policies imageI have observed over the years that institutions abhor inconsistency. The bigger and more widely dispersed the institution and its units, the more they abhor inconsistency — and the more they reject local and circumstantial contexts in favor of universal application. Take sentencing guidelines, for example. They are intended to foster consistency (presumably synonymous with “fairness”). When it was perceived that US federal judges’ sentences for similar crimes varied widely from region to region, Congress created the US Sentencing Commission (USCC). By the way, Canada’s Criminal Code sentencing guidelines resemble in nature and purpose those of the USCC.

US Legal offers the following sentencing guidelines definition and rationale:

Sentencing guidelines are the standards for determining the punishment that a person convicted of a crime should receive, based on the nature of the crime and the offender’s criminal history. In short it is the set of rules and principles a trial court judge follows to decide about the sentence to be given to a defendant who is found guilty. The sentencing guidelines are laid down by the United States Sentencing Commission. The sentencing guidelines help the judges to resolve their confusion in the complex decision-making process. The main object behind sentencing guidelines is to ensure consistency of sentencing in all courts in United States [emphasis added].

Except that justice and reason can easily be sacrificed on the altar of “consistency.” Frankly, I’m not a fan. I don’t see much evidence that consistency has improved.

image of judge with handcuffsMy observation is that in an effort to eradicate judicial corruption, we have propagated judicial cowardice.   We call them judges because we expect them to render … wait for it … judgment! Differences in judges’ subjective reasoning and in regional interpretations may not always be baseless, but judges — not criminals — are too often the ones handcuffed. The same goes for leaders in institutional settings. We come to rely on policies instead of judgment. Cowardice supplants courage.

During my years as an academic dean, I led in the development of a comprehensive faculty evaluation policy and procedure apparatus. Faculty were evaluated annually not merely on the basis of student evaluations of their classroom teaching (as is far too often typical), but in terms of six categories of faculty performance reflecting our holistic educational philosophy: (1) modeling Christlike living and service; (2) instructional effectiveness; (3) fostering student relationships; (4) academic advising; (5) scholarly productivity and professional development; (6) congruence with and contribution to institutional mission. Annual rating in each of the above categories — ultimately rendered on a scale of Superior, Satisfactory, Needs Improvement, or Unsatisfactory — relied upon a variety of measurement inputs.

When I sat across the table from each of my faculty colleagues to review their performance, I offered the same speech every year: I have done all I can to review and rely on multiple and objective assessments underlying each rating but, in the end, I cannot deny that I am making a judgment about your performance. That is my responsibility as a leader and I neither deny nor apologize for it. I do not consider my judgment infallible or even unbiased but I nevertheless accept that I am responsible to exercise it. For me to have pretended otherwise, to attempt to clothe my ultimate judgment in the cloak of “policy,” would have been to succumb to cowardice, to pretend that my application of “policy” absolved me of the responsibility (and risk) of exercising judgment.

If you are called to be a leader in an institutional setting, step up and take responsibility. Risk criticism and censure. Making a courageous judgment when hiding behind policy would be personally safe and institutionally justifiable but, in actuality, self-serving and unjust. I say again:


Resist the tendency to allow policies to become a substitute for judgment.


More leadership lane-assist prompts to come.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


  The age of miracles and misery machines

In this essay published in The Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, Jonathan Blake explores the paradox of our times. Although we enjoy a litany of creature comforts and conveniences, “abundant light and varied food, indoor plumbing and hot water with the twist of a knob, warm or cool air on demand, rapid and comfortable transportation and books, music and other entertainment in endless digital profusion.” Despite these — or perhaps because of these — Blake asserts, “[o]ur phones and other digital devices are becoming misery machines.” He’s right.

  Punished for exposing Planned Parenthood atrocities

For what would under other circumstances merit Pulitzer Prize nomination, a San Francisco district court jury found activist prolife journalists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud, breach of contract, and trespass and violation of state and federal recording laws for their undercover expose’ of Planned Parenthood’s lucrative, despicable, and brazen fetal body parts trafficking enterprise. Perhaps justice will prevail in an appeal, but we already know the verdict in the Highest Court of all.