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principles | PURPOSE | perspective

Open or shut? An essential leadership decision.


My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. – James 1:19-20

As your influence as a leader increases so does the power of your words. You may not fully realize it, but no matter where you are on the leadership spectrum, there are always people who will be influenced by what you say, sometimes profoundly. We each have a responsibility to dispense our opinions and use our influence wisely and ethically.

In the past week I have seen examples of how this responsibility has been handled well and reminded of occasions when it has not. Both came through men who regularly speak in public, so the pressure to measure words and deliver them carefully is great. Both men are in positions where the have significant influence over people, both personally and from the positions they hold.

The first is President Obama and the headline that caught my attention betrays the fact that he is the poorer of the two examples. ‘Judge: Obama sex assault comments ‘unlawful command influence.‘ Stars and Stripes, a military news source, tells of his condemnation of sexual assault in the military. A position you would hope the President would take, but his public statement went beyond what is appropriate for the Commander in Chief when his press conference included, “The bottom line is: I have no tolerance for this…I expect consequences…So I don’t just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way. If we find out somebody’s engaging in this, they’ve got to be held accountable — prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.” This case has a clear consequence in hampering the proper punishment of the guilty, but this is part of a pattern that reveals a blind spot for our President.

There are quite a few other examples discussed by Jack Marshall, one of my favorite bloggers, but there are two that stand out for me, revealing my own bias, where the president inserted his personal opinion to the detriment of the local law enforcetinment. In 2009 when he announced that Cambridge Police “acted stupidly” in arresting Professor Louis Gates. Then last year, in responding to the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, his comments included, “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Both are examples of using the influence granted by his office to sway public opinion inappropriately. In both of these cases the President inserted himself into a local concern, before facts were known, and exercised influence that he should not have.

On the other hand, I heard a message last weekend from the pastor of a large church, very directly entitled, “Homosexuality.” Before he stepped into that waiting firestorm he made a clear statement on what he was not going to talk about. He would not be offering an opinion on what laws we should pass, how people’s brains work, or the course our society should chart. All things I am certain he holds opinions on, probably very strong opinions. What he did was talk about the Bible. That is his job and if he had used his pulpit to stray from that, it would have been an abuse of his position and the influence it carries.

Two examples, a pastor and a president, with these leadership lessons:

First, understand that the ability to influence another is a gift and a responsibility that should be approached with respect. Respecting that responsibility includes having an informed opinion. Gather enough information, without jumping to conclusions, or have sufficient experience to offer something useful. Approach this with humility. Submit to the fact that most issues are complicated and have ample grey territory. If something seems simple to you, but not to others, this may be advice worth heeding.

The more someone knows about any given subject, the likelier he is to include a lot of boring, hard-to-follow caveats, complicating factors and exceptions in discussing it.
Tim Kreider, NY Times Blogger, from The Power of I Don’t Know

Second, comprehend the difference between your personal influence and influence granted by your position. If you are a police officer, a pastor or the President of the United States your position gives you influence. Failure to appreciate the difference will result in abuse.

In your personal relationships you may be invited to influence many areas of someone’s life. Your opinions on all things may be welcomed, sought after, or even required depending on the strength of the relationship. Your spouse, your children, a mentor or a close friend are all relationships that thrive on trust and an exchange of opinion and influence based on who you are, personally.

So how do you tell the difference and know when it is appropriate to share an opinion or not? Consider applying a test like this:

As a police officer how you would respond to a question like, “What is your opinion on…gun control, concealed carry laws, immigration reform or legalization of marijuana?” How might your response differ in these situations:

When your son or daughter asks?
When your spouse asks?
When a friend asks?
When someone you just met in a social setting asks?
When someone you just met in your role as a police officer asks?
When asked in front of a crowd at a community meeting?
When asked by a news reporter?

These seven questions cover the spectrum; green, yellow and red lights.

When your child or spouse ask you have the green light. In fact, I would say you are compelled to give an opinion. Not only should you influence them personally, you must! It is your responsibility. If they are asking your help in forming an opinion, get in there and help them develop an informed one. A friend could also fall into this group depending on the nature of the relationship and the level of trust you share and permission they have given.

Otherwise, friends and acquaintances get a yellow light, where you can offer an opinion, but take it seriously. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, heard this sobering statement heard from a mentor,

“It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting. Why don’t you invest more time being interested.”

You are never required to offer an opinion to this group, so don’t do it just to be interesting, save your influence until it is meaningful and helpful.

Finally, the red light. Anytime you are in uniform or otherwise representing your office, keep your opinions to yourself. This influence multiplier that has been entrusted to you is not for your personal use. Using your office or position to promote your own opinion or advance a personal agenda is abuse, even if it is unintentional.

But now you know, so it can’t be unintentional any longer.


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