The Power of Drawing a Leadership Line in the Sand

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This week an issue crossed my desk that required a tough decision to be made.

Because the issue was fairly complex, I was glad I had already learned the principle of drawing a leadership line in the sand.

And it reminded me that anytime a leader faces a complex decision, it’s important to have lines already firmly drawn in the sand.

A line in the sand where your core values intersect with real life situations.

Several years ago I was called in to help turn around a non-profit organization which had been in a financial tailspin.

About three months into this journey the Chief Financial Officer came into my office and delivered some very bad news. “Scott, it looks as though we’re not going to make it.”

He explained that there was not enough money on hand to meet the next payroll. At the point where an organization misses payroll, you are basically finished.

I asked him for options.

“Well,” he began, “We are sitting on a trust fund containing more than enough money. To be clear, it’s not our money, but we do have access to it. If we were convinced that things would turn around, and that we’d be able to replace those funds later, we could dip into that account and cover our shortfall.”

I’m not going to lie to you. This was tempting.

But then, almost in unison, the C.F.O. and I said, “Wait, what are we doing? This goes against everything you and I believe in. No, we won’t violate our principles and use funds that are not really ours.”

This encounter had reminded us of three vital “line in the sand” leadership truths.

1.  A line in the sand must be drawn before you need it.

When you’re in a moral dilemma it’s too late to start figuring out your principles.

2.  A line in the sand must be shared.

Being able to say, “I won’t cross that line” is good. But it’s nothing like the power of an entire team saying, “WE won’t cross that line.”

3.  A line in the sand must be absolute.

A line in the sand must be peppered with words like “always” (“We will always…”) and “never” (“We will never…”). Not “sometimes” or “usually”

By the way, the following week an unexpected donation arrived which covered our shortfall, and the turnaround went on to be a success.

But maybe more important than salvaging the organization was the satisfaction of maintaining our own integrity.

Do you have clear core values? Good. Now, put them to work in real-life situations.

It starts by drawing a line in the sand.

When have you needed to draw a line in the sand?

Updated from January 22, 2015 post

the author

Scott Cochrane

Vice President- International, Willow Creek Association. Love Jesus, Nora, Adam & Robin, Amy, Dave & Willow and John, Fiona & Will. Lifelong learner.

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