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Katherine Tyler Scott
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Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

Leader as Chief Investigator

Q: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acted too quickly in removing Shirley Sherrod from her USDA job. How can today's leaders assess when to move quickly and when to hang back?

Good leaders rarely ever feel that they have all of the facts when faced with making a decision. Even when they think they have all the information they know that the data they have is being screened through partisan perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and values that affect the accuracy of the information received.

In this case, the leaders's first response should have been to check the data, and to talk with the individual being accused to find out their version of what happened. Leaders understand that in the end their best judgment and right action is greatly dependent on this critical step in decision-making. The process of arriving at a prudent decision is reliant on getting historically accurate, credible, and trustworthy sources of information. The individual who released the video failed to meet this standard of legitimacy.

The leader must have a capacity to ferret out the fuller truth from differing and often conflicting perceptions and accounts. The data collected has to be looked at in its totality in order to make any real sense of it. This takes time, and unless it is a matter of life or death, nothing should be permitted to override this step.

In the case of the controversial, malevolently edited video of Mrs. Sherrod's speech, the motive of the individual who provided it and the media who immediately promoted its veracity, was to play the game of "gotcha!" When this is the dynamic, the ability to step back is critically important because it gives the leader the space and time to see the larger context of the behavior and more options for the ultimate decision.

What was the context? The Tea Party had just been "called out" by the NAACP for racism in its ranks. In spite of efforts by some to neutralize or negate the word racism it remains the potent carrier of our collective memories of a shameful past of discrimination and brutal use of power against African Americans.

The game of "gotcha" was intended to strike at the core of the NAACP's identity and integrity and all that it stands for - respect for the dignity and value of all people. The game of "gotcha" was intended to expose this organization and to call its reputation and record into question. The video was intended to fuel the fears of whites about African Americans in power.

It was meant to send the message that given an opportunity African Americans will retaliate. The quickness with which this story was believed, in spite of a questionable source, demonstrates the need for much more work on racism. It revealed how destructive the game of "gotcha" is when predicated on lies and distortions of fact become the "truth."

The USDA went into a reactive rather than a morally responsible mode in dealing with the accusations. Their hasty decision was not questioned by the Administration. Why? Perhaps the swiftness of judgment also points to there being far more concern about image than finding out the fuller truth or assuming innocence rather than guilt. When the "hot button" of racism is pushed leaders must not flee from it and but rather take time to reflect on the facts while being conscious of the emotions that might affect their judgment and decision making.

The Individual who played the "gotcha game" is no longer being discussed much; the media's attention has shifted to the USDA leader, the president and his circle of leaders and what impact this event might have on re-elections.

Despite this leaders must still do the right thing and act ethically and responsibly by seeking the truth, no matter the unethical and irresponsible behavior of others. The USDA Secretary took while to address the injustice to Mrs. Sherrod. Perhaps it means they were taking adequate time to gather the facts, weigh the credibility of sources, see the totality of the situation, and discern the fuller truth in order to arrive at the right decision. If these were the reasons a valuable lesson in leadership was learned--impulsiveness and reactivity will almost always result in the wrong decision.

By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  July 23, 2010; 6:57 AM ET
Category:  Failures Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

There are some really great points in this article. I find myself to be a reactive person, and want to learn from that. However, I have a tough time taking away the lessons about reacting to racial issues. I'm not familiar with the case in discussion. It seams that the leaders reaction to a situation was improper because they reacted to the topic of racism. However, from what I can read is he was not the person in the administration who embarked on the topic, but rather the subordinate. I can clearly see there are lessons to learn from this, however I wish it was written with less emotion and more direct on "did do" and "should have done". I grew up in a very diverse culture so do not think of race, yet I need coaching on how to handle situations like this because I may manage someone who does have racial or agenda prejudices. Thanks for the article.

Posted by: matt_hooper_2000 | July 23, 2010 9:05 AM
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