12 leadership lessons from Ferguson and Staten Island

I included in my monthly newsletter (Click here to sign up), sent out earlier this week, a short piece called “10 lessons in leadership from Ferguson.” I didn’t assign any of the lessons to an individual, group, or incident because I believe those involved on the front lines – state and local officials, the prosecutor, the police, the community activists, the protesters and the media (with its absurd lack of diversity) all share fault and credit for everything that went wrong, and everything that wasn’t as bad as it could have been.BlackSuitC_2

I want to share the list, but I also want to add two things that stem from the decision Wednesday by a grand jury in Staten Island, N.Y., not to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke hold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner last July.

An indictment is a formal charge of a crime. It’s an official accusation, not a conviction. Indicting Pantaleo would have made him no more guilty than he is today, and given the deference juries show to law enforcement officers, might not have resulted in a guilty verdict.

What it would have done is set in motion a thorough, thoughtful investigation that allowed us to learn all the facts of how and why Garner, a father of six, was killed with a procedure banned by the New York City Police Department. Indicting Pantaleo might have helped the public understand why another unarmed black man died at the hands of a police officer, this time for allegedly selling a few loose cigarettes from his pocket.

There were conflicting and sometimes confusing witness accounts about the series of events that led to the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last August by then-Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson.

However, as Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” pointed out: “None of the ambiguities that existed in the Ferguson case exist in the Staten Island case, and yet the outcome is exactly the same.”

Indeed, the confrontation and eventual scuffle that led to Garner’s death was captured on videotape in eerie, morbid, bone-chilling detail.

So, what’s the leadership lesson here? Don’t ignore the obvious.

The second comes from a statement made by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., during an interview with CNN Wednesday night. King, who has a talent for the absurd, blamed Garner’s death on his physical condition, saying: “If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died for this. “The police had no reason to know he was in serious condition.”

Let’s stay a mugger unintentionally cuts a victim who takes blood anticoagulant medication. Let’s say the victim bleeds to death from what would be a flesh wound for most people. The mugger has no reason to know about the victim’s medical condition, but is nonetheless charged with murder, and rightly so.

King, who has a law degree from Notre Dame, knows this as well as anyone. So what’s the leadership lesson here? Don’t create a distraction to divert attention from the real problem.

Here, now, is my list of 12 lessons from Ferguson and Staten Island

  1. Don’t ignore the obvious. Sometimes it really is just what it looks like.
  2. Don’t divert attention from the problem. It doesn’t go away and you only exacerbate it and create new ones.
  3. When mishandled, a bad situation will always get worse. Never underestimate the broader implications of what might seem like an isolated incident.
  4. Someone has to be in charge. There must be clear lines of authority and accountability up, down, and across the organization.
  5. Sometimes you need a different approach. If what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t hesitate to try a well-thought-out alternative.
  6. Let your best people take the lead. Different situations call for different leadership styles and approaches. The fact that you happen to like an individual’s leadership style shouldn’t be the deciding factor.
  7. Know your team. Be aware of what your people are capable of doing, and what they actually are doing.
  8. Look for opportunities to build bridges and forge new partnerships. This is a continuous job. When things go wrong, it’s too late.
  9. Trust is fundamental to building and maintaining relationships. When we feel under siege there is a natural inclination to metaphorically circle the wagons, which only increases mistrust.
  10. Have a plan. Too many organizations have scrapped planning processes because the plans quickly become outdated. But it’s not about the plan; it’s about understanding what the future might hold and preparing to address multiple possibilities.
  11. Have an objective. Too many people act without knowing what they want as outcomes. Yogi Berra once said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” Enough said.
  12. Listen more than you talk. Listening is a leader’s most important communication skill. Smart leaders know that communication is more about engaging than being heard and it is engagement that allows people to find common ground and build consensus.


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