Brian Nicholson steers Red Jacket Orchards out of the orchard and toward juice

Brian Nicholson of Canandaigua is the President of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva.
Brian Nicholson of Canandaigua is the President of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva. (Kate Melton)

The day Red Jacket Orchards turned on the juice production line at its new plant in 2010, Brian Nicholson had a realization.

What began as a fruit farm and roadside produce stand two generations earlier had already expanded to shipping fruit and juice to much of the East Coast. Not to mention that Red Jacket Orchards had blanketed the New York City area and its Greenmarkets so thoroughly with its apples, apricots and juice that Nicholson could be recognized on Manhattan streets by the logo on his company shirt.

But the juice plant represented a significant shift for the fruit company.

“The day we turned this plant on, we realized we were in the beverage business,” Nicholson said in his office above the production line in the Geneva plant.

Indeed, under Nicholson’s direction, Red Jacket Orchards has been moving away from the orchard part of the business and toward juice. About 80 percent of revenues now come from bottling juice, Nicholson said. Over the last few years, Red Jacket has reduced its 500 acres of orchards by half, by cutting down old apple trees and selling off land. It also pulled out of the 50 Greenmarkets in New York City where it had been a mainstay for more than two decades.

At the same time, the company has grown seven-fold since 2000, Nicholson said, employing as many as 200 people during peak harvest season. His job now is to prepare the company for another growth spurt, planning to double business in the next five to 10 years.

Red Jacket Orchards expects it will make an announcement soon with Wegmans about deepening the two companies’ relationship. The impact on Red Jacket will be significant, Nicholson suggested.

Though Red Jacket is family owned — Brian Nicholson’s twin brother, Mark, and father Joe Nicholson Jr., are the other major owners — observers give much of the credit for the business to Brian’s leadership.

“He’s been very purposeful about kind of raising the bar on how we operate and go to market,” Mark Nicholson said. Brian is “really embracing trying to be a world class operation, in both how we manage the business and bring our people along.”

“He has a lot of personal qualities that contribute to his being a really great leader. He’s grown up with this, he smells it, he feels it. It’s in his bones,” said John Engels, founder and president of Leadership Coaching in Rochester. “I would say he was the right person at the right time to take this business.”

Nicholson couldn’t have felt farther from being the right person in 1996 when, not long out of college, he started working for Red Jacket Orchards by establishing wholesale accounts in New York City.

“I ran for six months until I realized I couldn’t work with my dad, even five hours away,” Nicholson said. New customers would order produce that Brian Nicholson would send the orders to his father fill in Geneva. When the order arrived, it often would be different, and the customer would reject it.  When Brian would call Joe for an explanation, the older Nicholson would tell his son that he had to sell what the farm was growing at that time.

The younger Nicholson’s time was productive nevertheless as he created relationships with chefs, restaurants and retail customers including Zabar’s delicatessen and Balducci’s.

“It really helped put us on the map,” Brian Nicholson said.  “Most of these customers are still with us.”

His brothers also helped establish significant parts of the business, with Mark developing juice blends that elevated the company above simple cider production. Older brother Joseph J. Nicholson III, who now works for the Veteran’s Administration in Canandaigua, built Red Jacket’s relationship with the network of farm markets in New York while he was still a college student in Manhattan.

The Nicholsons also have a younger sister, Amy Phillips, who runs a fine furniture business and event site in Geneva.

As Red Jacket’s fresh fruit and the first unique juice product — a cider made solely from Fuji apples — became more popular in New York City, Nicholson said customers at the farm markets started asking for deliveries. Red Jacket went along, finding opportunities to expand.

“If there’s anything Red Jacket has been good at, it’s not saying no,” he said.

But Brian Nicholson said no to the family business for a while. He lived in New York City and the surrounding area for several years as he worked as the sales representative for a Dutch flower bulb company, traveling around New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to straighten out bulb displays in stores like Walmart and Agway.

“That was a really neat job. My first job was downloading data from Walmart’s data interchange,” Nicholson said.

“I would go to Agway and see how business was done for the last 50 years. And then I’d go to Walmart and see how business would be done for the next 50 years.”

He also worked in New York City’s advertising and marketing industry, working on accounts for Proctor and Gamble that included the launch of Bounty paper napkins. It was a great time to live and work in New York, Nicholson said, but when he and his wife decided to start thinking about raising a family, they decided to move back to the Finger Lakes in 2000.

Nicholson came without a job, but his father had one in mind at Red Jacket.

“My father smelled opportunity and put on the full-court press,” Nicholson said with a laugh.

Joe Nicholson would run the farming operation, Mark would handle fresh fruit accounts, and Brian would run all the other parts of Red Jacket Orchards.

“Dad’s a prolific grower,” Brian Nicholson said of his 76-year-old father. “We both enjoy different aspects of the business. My dad in his heart of hearts is a grower and a developer of products. I love the organization side, the business management and marketing side.” He confesses that he’s also developed more patience, which has helped.

“His challenge early on was probably me learning patience,” Nicholson said.

In recent years, Joe Nicholson had stepped back as an active participant in the business, Brian Nicholson said, but with Mark’s departure and other restructuring, Joe will be overseeing the business’s now smaller farming footprint again. Brian has taken on some of Mark’s old work, too.

Red Jacket still grows apples, which form the base of its juice blends and remains known as one of the largest producers of fresh apricots in the East. But much of its juice comes from fruit grown by others now.

One exception is that Red Jacket is growing varieties of apples favored for production of hard cider and has a contract to supply the Albany area’s Angry Orchard. It also supplies smaller amounts of juice for smaller cideries. Nicholson said Red Jacket is happy to grow apples and supply juice for that growing industry, but has no plans to get into the making of hard cider itself.

Since 2000, Red Jacket Orchards has been through multiple growth stages, he said, growing at a rate of 10-25 percent in sales each year. Though the juice plant has been operating for nine years, it’s still at only 50 percent capacity, Nicholson said, because of some streamlining of operations.

Red Jacket’s continuing process of streamlining and recent shift in direction has been driven in part by the increasingly unpredictable nature of agriculture, Nicholson said. Three of the last five harvests have been severely diminished by weather — drought and unusual cold snaps. Crop insurance helped, but couldn’t cover all the losses, he said.

Moving toward juice production and away from raising fruit helps the company manage those kinds of risks better.

“That struggle to always keep growing and do the best products,” Nicholson said. “The food industry is challenging and fascinating. I’m proud of how we’ve navigated.”

“This reorganization and ability to now put the focus on the beverage is really in line with where (Brian’s areas of) expertise are,” his twin brother said.

Engels said leading a company is easy when things are going well; good leaders manage through tougher times.

“I’ve got to believe his people skills have been a key factor in the success of that business,” Engels said.

But both Engels and Mark Nicholson note Brian Nicholson’s devotion to life balance and improving his business skills. He has been active in local leadership development groups, and makes a special effort to make time for family and activities that re-energize him, such as running and sailing.

And while Nicholson is taking on more responsibility at the family company now, he plans to eventually find someone to run more of the day-to-day operations so he can be more of an owner than an operator.

“I am not the type of person who has to have his finger on the switch,” he said.

True to his pedigree, he still prefers the bigger picture and working with customers.

“I really love solving problems. I love solving customer’s problems,” Nicholson said. “Nothing’s better than standing in front of customer and pouring them a juice and seeing their positive reaction.”

[email protected]/ (585) 363-7275


Brian Nicholson

Title: President and CEO, Red Jacket Orchards

Age: 47

Residence: Canandaigua

Family: Wife Kirstin; 14-year-old twins Emily and Colin, 12-year-old daughter, Anna.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing, 1994, Cornell University.

Activities: running, sailing, competing in triathlons

Quote: “I really love solving problems. I love solving customer’s problems. … Nothing’s better than standing in front of customer and pouring them a juice and seeing their positive reaction.”

Parents and leaders: decide carefully when to be involved

rbj-engles-sigOne of the markers of wise parenting—and exemplary leadership —is learning when to be involved and when to be uninvolved.

Many who read this column are aware of their own tendencies toward excess, both at home and at work. This column will focus on over-involved parents, but the points apply to all leaders.

Parental invasiveness has become uncontrollable to the point of being viewed as standard and natural. It’s not.

In 1990, educator Jim Fay and psychiatrist Dr. Foster Cline coined the term “helicopter parents,” describing a growing social pattern: hovering parents who are tethered to their kids. A few years later, American college administrators began using it when they observed baby-boomer parents calling their children each morning to wake them up for class and complaining to their professors about grades the children had received.

Lawn mowers and snow plows

In recent months, two new terms, “lawn mower parents” and “snowplow parents,” have emerged to describe an intensification of parental over involvement. Lawn mower and snow plow parents are described as those who walk out in front of their children to remove obstacles, and nervously clear their kids’ paths of adversity, failure and struggle.

The new labels have gained popularity in part from teacher-recorded instances such as these:

  • A father stopped by the school to bring his daughter a water bottle from home because she kept texting him that she didn’t want to drink from the fountain at school.
  • A parent asked a teacher to walk her student to class to assure that the student would not be late.
  • A mother requested someone from the cafeteria blow on her child’s hot lunch to cool it down.
  • A parent called to schedule a make-up test when the student was clearly old enough to make that request.

By making life easier for their children, some parents believe they are fulfilling their duty to “always be there.”

Use whatever labels you want, but you don’t have to be a lawn mower, snow plow or helicopter to be concerned about your kids. It’s natural to want the best for your munchkins, even if they’re 38. The problem is not good intentions, the problem is unregulated, automatic reactions. In the upper and middle classes especially, we are now faced with the incessant whirling and buzzing of helicopters, snow plows and lawn mowers on autopilot. Where are the controls?

Before you start to feel hot and bothered, I want to make it clear that there are times for parents to be involved. Some help is necessary. Measured advice has its place. Stepping in to prevent a true catastrophe is appropriate.

I’ve done my fair share of getting too worked up about a routine problem confronting one of my children. Looking back, I can see very few instances when my over involvement made a positive difference. Mostly, it got in the way.

Though they claim good intentions, invasive parents usually operate without thinking. Their “helpfulness” is more automatic than strategic. In the process, they undermine important life lessons such as self reliance and problem solving.

Self-appointed roles

As parents we may take on self-appointed roles based on our anxiety. Have you found yourself assuming any of these roles?

            Referee – At the first sign of disagreement or conflict between children, a parent steps   in to restore order and nip disharmony in the bud. Problem: Kids grow up without             learning how to deal with difficult social situations, handle interpersonal conflict and      navigate disagreements.

            Mate Selector – Parents of younger children select who their kids should play with,    giving particular attention to weaker, less threatening children who appear least likely to           bully their kids. This doesn’t stop with childhood. Parents of adult children believe they    must “weigh in”—uninvited—on the acceptability of those who date their adult   offspring. Problem: Adult children depend more on others’ opinions than on their own     thinking and judgment.

            Homework Helper – Parents routinely suggest, remind, edit, write and perfect their    kids’ homework assignments. Problem: Kids do not develop self-disciplined problem-         solving and study habits. Many grow up thinking they are smarter and more industrious       than is accurate because neither their homework nor their grades reflect independent   effort.

As sure as there are over-involved parents, there are also under-involved parents—although I haven’t heard of a catchy term for them. These parents are often preoccupied with their own financial worry, health challenges or general busyness. Uninvolved parents fail to establish a reliable presence in the lives of their children or foster a supportive home environment. All kids need and deserve advice and a word of caution from time to time. They want to know they are valued and safe. They need this framework in order to grow and thrive.

The point is not to blame the over-involved or the under-involved, but to improve parental judgment so our kids become responsible, resourceful, thoughtful adults. Most parents would be assessed as a mix of involved and uninvolved. Is your mix a healthy one? Do you act automatically when challenges arise? Have you thought about when you should step in or step out?

Deciding when to act

With parenting presence, the main issue is when to act—or not act. There’s a time to be on top of what our kids are doing, and there’s a time to back off. There’s a time to tell, and a time to ask. There’s a time to let your voice be heard, and a time to give a kid space.

The drivers for healthy when decisions are reflection and discernment. Ask yourself, “Is this decision in the best interests of my child, or am I simply reacting based on anxiety?” In each instance, think more about long-term benefits than about short-term protectiveness or expediency.

It’s not easy to know when to be involved in our kids’ challenges. Stepping back can be scary, messy, time-consuming, even costly. Parenting—like all leadership—is a long and bumpy ride. The hope is that the time will arrive when your children are strong enough to set you straight and wise enough to know when to seek you out. Then you’ll be able to park the plow, stow the mower, and watch your kids take charge of their own decisions and actions.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].


When hiring a leader, look for character, maturity

john-engles_column-sigWhen you hire or promote a leader, what attributes do you look for?

Most organizations emphasize intelligence, talent and accomplishments. They want to know what someone is good at, and they ask about an individual’s record of success.

Top-level job-hunting coaches lean heavily toward positive spin—presenting background and experience in the most impressive wording possible. The salient idea behind all resumes and job interviews is, “Put your best foot forward.”

That makes perfect sense if the focus is on raw ability: Can this person do the job? Do they think strategically?

But what about other important dimensions of a leader’s success such as self-awareness, openness to feedback and trustworthiness? How can an organization learn more about an applicant’s “real self” before they hire or promote?

I’m asking these questions because I have observed how often key hires don’t work out. More often than not, the problem resides in their degree of character and level of maturity—not in their job competence per se.

To learn more about a person’s substance, the interview conversations have to go deeper. They have to get beyond “best foot forward.”

The best way to do this is to ask questions that provide hints about a candidate’s depth and resilience. Such questions are more probing, novel and risking than typical “vanilla” interview questions for which candidates have usually prepped to look impressive.

Let’s take a closer look at depth and resilience as interview goals.


Depth has to do with reflectiveness—an individual’s capacity to reflect on an experience and learn from it. The more leadership responsibility you have, the more important it is to reflect on your own life and to become a more astute observer of your own and others’ behaviors.

To probe a person’s depth, consider giving leadership candidates a few “take-home” questions for reflection and later discussion. Depth-revealing questions require self-honesty with a minimum of “bluff.” For example:

“Give an example of a time when your judgment about another person’s character turned out to be inaccurate.”

“Do you lean more towards empathy or toughness? Give an example.”

“Name a recent situation in which you acted outside your integrity.”

“What current habits and behaviors of yours risk your premature demise?”

“Who do you tend to blame the most?”

Do you notice the edginess of these questions? That’s what produces the value.


Resilience is measured by how a person responds to adversity. The ability to recover from setbacks, losses and mistakes is a centerpiece of goal-directed activity.

In an interview, to assess resilience you want to discover a person’s ability to maintain perspective and persevere through difficulties.

To discover more about a leader’s resilience, consider asking questions about his/her responses to four types of experiences: mistakes, biases, failures and adversity. Consider questions along these lines:

“Give an example of a mistake that helped you learn an important lesson.”

“What are your rules of thumb for handling another’s big mistake?

“When’s the last time you really blew it? How did you handle it?”

“What steps do you take to become more aware of your biases and blind spots?”

“In your view, is it ever accurate to claim a complete lack of bias?”

“How do you handle race, religion or gender biases that you detect in those who report to you?”

“Outside of your record of successes, what have been your most glaring failures?”

“What have you learned from failing?”

“What do you see as the difference between acceptable and unacceptable failures?”

“What are the most noteworthy barriers you’ve faced in your lifetime?”

“What have you learned about yourself from the adversity you’ve experienced?”

“What do you see as the upside and downside to a ‘suck it up’ mindset?”

Obstacles to deeper questions

To pose challenging questions like those suggested above, two obstacles must be overcome.

The first obstacle is the possibility that the person asking the questions has never addressed and applied those questions to self. This is the problem of pretense: the interviewer is trying to lead others into a terrain they have never hiked.

A superficial individual cannot become credible by asking a deep question they read about in a business journal column. A question has to be lived before it can credibly be asked of others.

A second obstacle to posing important, thought-provoking questions centers on managing discomfort. Whenever you ask a probing question, candidates are likely to squirm. Commonly, they will say they have never thought about the question, that no one has ever asked that question of them, or that they would have to think before responding to the question.

The key is for the one asking the question to remain calm in the face of another’s discomfort. Too often, interviewers nervously retract the question at the first sign of the interviewee’s discomfort.

Remember: discomfort is part of leadership, so you want to observe how a person manages themselves during an uneasy moment. It’s hard to pay attention to that when you’re nervous yourself.

The lesson of this column is that if you want to select a leader based not only on know-how and background, but also on character and maturity, it’s going to cost you the effort to formulate thoughtful questions. And it’s going to require a willingness to regulate your own anxiety about the other’s discomfort.

The big benefit of this vetting process is the deeper understanding you will likely gain about how a potential key leader would fit in your organization.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

Succession mantra: ‘Lead as if I’m not there’

rbj-engles-sig“One of your main responsibilities as a leader is to lead the movement forward as if I’m not there.”

Those words were spoken in 2012 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in a private conversation with Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration. “(His) words struck me like a lightning bolt,” Sangay later reported. “I was shocked, emotional and overwhelmed.”

I first came across these words in a letter sent out by Sangay to Tibetans — and their supporters — throughout the world. When I read “Lead as if I’m not there,” it sounded familiar. I recognized it as a predictable mantra for any organization that wants to thrive into the future. Those words capture a universal dance between leader and follower with one evolutionary purpose: ensuring continuation.

What dedicated leader does not want their work to continue?

And what faithful follower does not step into the shoes of a respected leader without soberly considering the challenges ahead?

Lasting impact

Any leader who desires lasting impact after stepping down must find a way to speak, mean and model these words:

“Lead this work forward as if I’m not there.”

Speaking and meaning the words is the easy part. The hard part is backing up that good intention with a clear set of behaviors and strategies that make leadership transition less shocking and more seamless.

If you are a long-time leader, and your own involvement is beginning to wind down, consider five strategies to plan for your succession:

  1. See the work as bigger than you. Develop the awareness that you are no longer the primary “owner” of the work. Cultivate generosity: “I’ve had a good run; now I’m going to give others their shot.” Make passing the torch your overarching goal.
  1. Select the best person or person(s) to carry on. Don’t assume your younger sibling, adult child or nephew has what it takes. Carefully design and execute a vetting process for all leadership candidates. As part of that process, ask questions that reveal a person’s character, self-awareness, clarity and calmness, as well as openness to feedback and new ideas.
  1. Spend one-on-one time with your successor(s). Connect with the one or more individuals who will carry on the work you’ve started. Ask them what they would like to discover about you or the work. Invite them to come up with questions. Set up a regular routine for one-on-one time that emphasizes deeper understanding of one another.
  1. Incrementally let go of oversight. Systematically and continually give up responsibilities. Look for opportunities to delegate thinking — not just tasks — by asking, “What are your thoughts?” Delegate relationship responsibilities by asking, “What’s your plan for building a stronger connection with the team?
  1. Intentionally develop a Plan B. Recognize that you’re probably not going to let go of the work you’ve been dedicated to for many years if you don’t have alternative interests and commitments. It’s time to explore internally (“What’s important to me, and what do I want to do for the rest of my life?”) and externally (“What’s going on ‘out there’ that might be a good fit for my involvement?”) Ideally, your Plan B would include elements of leisure, self-care and “giving back.”

If you are a designated successor or leadership candidate, you might want to consider your own five strategies:

  1. Acknowledge your self-doubt, and define yourself. Filling the shoes of a founder or respected leader often includes a nagging, unspoken question: “Can I do it?” Don’t make more of that routine question than it is. Work on developing your own style and approach. Reflect on the kind of leader you want to be, and keep experimenting with how to flesh that out in real-time behavior.
  1. Build a resource and support network. Who do you talk to in confidence when confronted with a moral bind, relationship dilemma, or sudden crisis? What’s your plan for staying healthy in mind, body and spirit? What do you need from your coach, friends and health resources? The best leaders put in place — and actively rely upon — dependable sources for support, clarity and challenge.
  1. Incrementally increase your responsibilities. Demonstrate that you’re ready to dive in. Try to avoid the extremes of drifting in the status quo or recklessly pushing an agenda. Take on more of the responsibilities that belong to you and actively delegate what belongs to others. Make learning something new a daily goal.
  1. Increase meaningful contact with the person you are succeeding. Take a year or more to learn everything you can about and from the person who’s been leading. Drive those conversations as deeply as you can: “Where are the land mines in this work?” “What kept you up at night?” “Who are the individuals you found most helpful and most difficult?” Take responsibility for setting up regular, one-on-one connections with the person you are succeeding.
  1. Stay separated from the person you’re succeeding. At the same time that you cultivate connection, realize that you are your own person, distinct from the current leader. Their views, experiences, prejudices, insights and beliefs are theirs. It’s up to you to decide which dimensions of their experience and advice you want to keep and which you want to discard. The best way to develop healthy separateness is to focus on refining your own beliefs, values and self-knowledge. Learning about self contributes to vibrantly leading others.

For leaders who desire a transition away from 24/7 responsibility, the challenge is to let go, strategically and emotionally.

For successors whose time has come to take on a more impactful leadership role, the challenge is to seize the moment and step up.

The coordination of those two commitments — letting go and stepping up — captures the essence of succession planning.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

Surgeon chat sparks leadership lessons for businesses

rbj-engles-sigA friend of mine needed surgery to remove a benign tumor in his pituitary gland.

Like any surgery involving the brain, that’s an operation requiring great precision. The involved parts are small and delicate.

Not long after his successful operation, I visited my friend in the hospital. As luck would have it, the presiding neurosurgeon happened to be in the room. Before the doctor left, I asked him a question: “What qualities contribute to being a good neurosurgeon?”

A surgeon’s reflections

He stopped and thought for a moment, then responded. “You know, I can think of four capacities. The first is athleticism—the fingers. The best neurosurgeons have a sensitive touch and exquisite dexterity. Most of us have this, but some have it more than others. It’s an important feature of being a good surgeon, but not the most important.

“The second capacity is ethics. It’s character that determines whether we wash our hands thoroughly a second time. No one is looking. We’re free to cut corners, but the best surgeons don’t do that. It’s ethics that nudge some of us to double check the X-rays and to call the radiologist if there’s any nagging question. Ethics separates the best surgeons from those who are merely technically sound.”

“The third quality would be the way a surgeon treats the operating room staff—the nurses, assistants and attending physicians. We surgeons have a reputation for thinking that we are gods. Actually, we’re just part of an elite team wherein every member has to be on their game. I’ve found that treating my teammates respectfully keeps the atmosphere calm and focused.

“And the last thing I’d mention is, ‘Just keep learning.’  You can never know everything as a surgeon, but you can always learn more.”

Seeing parallels

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of his off-the-cuff summary. What struck me most was how closely that description lines up with what makes a good leader: task and profession knowledge, ethics, relationship management and continual learning.

A closer look at these four key dimensions of leadership provides an excellent reminder for veteran leaders and a great primer for those new to leadership.

The equivalent of a surgeon’s dexterity is a leader’s task and profession knowledge. I remember many years ago, a trucking company executive told me, “I could go out in our lot and tear apart a truck engine and put it back together again.” That’s a leader who knows his product.

Task knowledge includes subject matter expertise. Leaders need to possess industry knowledge and skill and understand the products and services of their organization. That’s a basic requirement. You have to have it. But, just as physical dexterity is not the most important capability for a surgeon, task management is not the most important dimension of leadership.

Ethical habits

The second capacity is ethics: the way a leader understands what is right and wrong, and a commitment to do what is right.

Ethics comes from a Greek word, ethikos, meaning, “habit.” A leader’s ethics are revealed not so much in beliefs and words, but in habitual behaviors. Take the example of a leader who believes that being authentic is a form of honesty and a good way to behave, yet constantly acts like he is smarter or more competent or more sincere than is accurate. That leader’s ethical measure can be observed in his behavior, more than in his beliefs. Habits reveal ethics.

Since many leadership situations are complex, and easy answers are hard to come by, it’s not always clear what is right and wrong. A big part of living ethically is a leader’s commitment to discernment, the sifting and weighing that (sometimes slowly) produces clarity.

Another vital ethical consideration is imperfection. Each of us can strive to be highly ethical all the time. That’s a noble goal. But what happens when we falter or make poor judgments, or in a moment of weakness, act selfishly? Part of an individual’s ethics is her ability to distinguish a pattern from an episode.

One mistake does not define a life. A leader who is usually on time but occasionally runs late is not the same as a leader who is chronically late. Habits, not instances, count the most.

Relationship management

The third common element between the best surgeons and the best leaders is relationship management.

The neurosurgeon I referenced above plays the lead role in any operation he is involved in. During brain surgery, there’s no question who’s in charge of that procedure. But is it possible to be in charge without being bossy? What benefits can be gained from taking appropriate responsibility without dictating everyone else’s responsibility?

Relationship management skills comprise a broad category that includes listening, willingness to openly self-disclose, clarity, curiosity and connectivity. The best relationship leaders manage tension and conflict instead of avoiding, facilitate deeper conversations, and coach to build responsibility and resilience.

One critical yet routinely overlooked part of people skills is how one manages self. Taking care of one’s health, knowing where one stands on important decisions, and being able to regulate one’s over-reactions—these capacities improve one’s effectiveness in leading others.

Lifelong learning

It’s the mix of these three capacities—tasks, ethics and relationships—that supports the fourth pillar, continual learning.

None of us is enlightened enough to fully master task efficiency, ethics or people skills. There is always opportunity to learn more. The most conscientious leaders I know integrate learning into their schedules and plans. They possess a mindset of lifelong learning.

A leader’s learning is not limited to the narrow confines of his particular industry or profession.

It expands to include interior learning that focuses on self-awareness, and exterior learning that seeks deeper understanding of the surrounding community and broader world.

I didn’t expect to get a 5-minute leadership lesson from a busy neurosurgeon in my friend’s hospital room that day. Sometimes, luck prevails.

Thank you to the neurosurgeon whose reflections sparked this column!

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

Leadership arises when easy answers are hard to come by

john-engles_column-sigLeadership failures can often be traced to a cardinal bad habit: oversimplifying beliefs, responses and decisions.

This happens when leaders make decisions too quickly and expediently so they can move on to the next issue on the agenda. Or when they become impatient or lazy and habitually prefer sound bites to deep dives. That’s unfortunate.

Why? Because the issues and problems associated with leading cultural change, managing relationships and taking on risk are rarely easy to figure out.

My experience tells me that oversimplifying complex issues usually disregards the context and misses the root of the problem. Without context and depth, it’s more difficult to understand a situation, size up the options and make sound decisions. This gets particularly tricky when the available choices seem less than ideal, whether in business or family settings.

I often recommend to my clients that they adopt an “it depends” mindset as an alternative to making simplistic, yes-or-no decisions.

‘It depends’

The practice of “it depends” provides an important exercise for both personal life and business situations.

Let’s consider two individuals I’ll call Kendrick and Samara. Kendrick currently faces a personal health challenge, while Samara is struggling with an important career decision.

Kendrick has high cholesterol. At 54, he eats well, exercises regularly and has only a mild family history of heart disease. Both of Kendrick’s parents lived into their mid-80s, and neither died from heart-related causes.

A physician Kendrick trusts suggested that he take a statin drug to reduce his cholesterol. But he considers the potential side effects of the drug—muscle soreness, digestive problems and cognitive impairment—not worth the risk.

Although Kendrick’s lifestyle reduces his risk of heart disease, a statin would lower his risk even further.

What should Kendrick do?

He could refuse the statin and live with the heart disease risk. He could take the protective statin and live with the unsavory side effects. Or he could choose an in-between option such as trying various statins to find one that delivers the best cholesterol-reducing benefits while minimizing side effects.

Samara, 44, is in a similar position with a current workplace dilemma. She joined a professional firm a few years ago, became a partner and earns a higher income than most of her peers in other firms. The income has become more important of late, since she and her spouse have taken on the debt of a vacation home in Maine.

The problem is that she feels she can no longer tolerate one of the senior partners, whom she sees as underhanded, self-serving and manipulative. Since the two work in the same practice area, she has found no justifiable way to ignore her problem partner. Their impasse has reached the point of an icy silence that has not escaped the awareness of other partners or staff. To make matters worse, the partner she detests is widely respected outside the firm and generates substantial firm revenue.

What should Samara do?

She could stay in the firm, growing her earning potential even more while remaining in a tense relationship with a partner she finds unbearable. She could leave the firm and sacrifice income to find a less stressful work situation. Or she could explore an in-between step such as involving a third party to resolve the tension between her and her partner—or at least to find a path to peaceful coexistence.

Less-than-ideal options

In each of the above scenarios, there are no ideal solutions.

For Kendrick, any choice he makes produces advantages and disadvantages. Taking a statin or not taking it both involve risk.

For Samara, all options involve some combination of relief and discomfort, convenience and inconvenience. Her troublesome partner is unlikely to leave the firm, and she can’t bear the current relationship.

Many of us find ourselves in the same predicament as Kendrick and Samara: sometimes there are no ideal solutions. Their situations—and ours—are more common than unusual. The temptation is to hold out for a perfect solution.

For Kendrick, the perfect solution would be a long and disease-free life without a statin. For Samara, all would be optimal if her troublesome partner left the firm or retired.

Unfortunately, such Utopian scenarios are virtually unattainable in life and only serve to lock us into a fantasy mindset that avoids progress.

In the face of a difficult problem or big decision, work must be done to find a realistic solution.

Choosing ‘imperfect’ solutions

One of the most important and most agonizing skills to exercise in these situations is the willingness to choose from among several less-than-ideal options.

True leaders and strong individuals who accept the reality of choosing from limited options prove their mettle when there are no easy answers. They learn the art of strategic compromise: knowing when to give up something to get something. They practice discernment, sifting the alternatives to reach their best judgment. Finally, they take a leap of faith that they have done the best they can in choosing a course of action.

It’s uncomfortable to make a choice when there is no simple solution, explanation or answer.

But time spent in careful discernment brings wisdom and the courage to make tough choices, even when they are “imperfect.”

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].