To all the “Deciders:”

I am going to guess that you know who you are…unless you are completely clueless as to your power and influence.

If that is the case and you are completely clueless as to whether or not you are a “decider,” let’s refresh our memories on the situation that made that particular descriptive noun famous. In April of 2006, President George W. Bush found himself needing to defend his sometimes fractious Defense Secretary: Donald Rumsfeld. In response to questions about Rumsfeld’s capabilities, Bush had this to say: “I listen to all voices, but mine is the final decision…I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.”

(Side note: I never thought I would miss George W Bush, but I do!! While I doubted some policies, I never doubted his basic goodness. I do miss all of those epic words that Will Ferrell so masterfully imitated and expounded upon: “Strategery!” And…if you missed W’s humorous snafu with some rain-gear at the inauguration, it is well worth a look. You are welcome).

So, for Bush, because he was president, he was the “decider.” What about you? Are you the president of something? The CEO? A senior pastor? Chairperson of the Board?  One of my friends put on her Facebook that she is the CEO of her family. I’m sure she listens to and takes everyone’s desires and opinions to heart, but the final decision on something probably lands with her. Do you have the power and/or ability to overturn something? To deliver the final yes or no on an idea? A person to hire?

How about deciding to invite someone to speak at a conference? Or win an award? Or what about an advertisement that goes out to millions of people? More on Princeton and Pepsi later.

Now, a basic objection to even the concept of the “decider” is that people don’t really act alone. Part of how we are deep-breathing our way through this current presidency is to say there are “checks and balances,” or we try to think about the least offensive advisors who might get through to him. Hello, Ivanka? Are you still there? But, in George W. Bush’s case, while there are other voices present that are considered, he makes the final call on the situation or in that case, the person, in question. It is the “focus-group” mindset. Listen to some voices, then decide.

Obviously, given my last post, I am interested in how decisions are made personally, particularly when confronted with competing goals. I think the root is personal. However, I am even more interested in how this extends to systems, organizations, communities and am intrigued with models of leadership and accountability and how organizations answer the age old question: “who gets to decide?”

My interest has only increased as our communication has exploded, the stakes have gotten higher and entire people groups are affected by organizational decisions as they always have, only now, for ALL to see and respond/react to….immediately.

Over the past few weeks, there have been a few decisions that left me wondering, who was the decider? Who had the final call to say yes or no? Moreover, should there EVER be one person who makes a final call? Many organizations wisely have boards, which leads me to wonder, who is on that board? How much power do they have? Are there conflicts of interest? Is the board in touch with the constituents or demographics being served or represented?  What questions do these board members raise? If so, are there objections that get routinely ignored by senior leadership?

My Facebook feed recently blew up over the Princeton Theological Seminary debacle. For those of you who are either not Christian, don’t care, or have been hiding under a rock, Princeton Theological Seminary (a seminary that espouses the full inclusion of women and members of the LGBTQ community as participants and leaders in all ministry roles) invited Tim Keller—a well-known evangelical pastor whose denomination prohibits those two people groups from leadership in ministry—to both receive a $10,000 award and speak at the seminary. MUCH has been written about this situation and is interesting and worth examining. There are many ways to engage the issue(s) that this invitation and specifically this award brought up. That is not my aim here with my no-power self and my tiny blog.  I am simply wanting to wonder in writing about the way decisions are made.  To make the long Princeton story short, there was an outcry from many students and alumni, Princeton rescinded the award but still invited Keller to speak, to which he graciously agreed. (He delivered his address this past Thursday April 6th).

I don’t know who was in the meetings, or what led up to the invite and award—Keller is a big-name Christian and he is certainly worthy of praise for his contribution to faith, work, and urban mission, so it is not really surprising that he would be in consideration for an award in a variety of different contexts. What is surprising is the apparent surprise from Princeton which led to rescinding the award. Granted, there is something beautiful about being responsive to your student body—it seems loving and caring. But, is it possible to be loving and caring in a way that is anticipatory? Where decisions are birthed out of thoughtful and prayerful intentionality? Where students and alumni who would be impacted by this decision might have been brought into the decision-making process before the award was offered? These are good things, and I’m willing to bet that the leadership at Princeton is, like so many other organizations, is accountable to a board, has a robust faculty that engages and dialogues in the midst of disagreements and differing opinions. Therefore, I am shocked that no one had anticipated that there would be an outcry from female and LGBTQ students. Maybe someone did, like George W, listen to those voices, but, if this Keller fiasco shows anything, it is that just listening isn’t enough.

We have to decide not to be the only decider. Even if we have been given the “position” of having the last word and the final call, those decisions would look and sound dramatically different if made other people deciders. People who are not like us. People who have not had the privilege and the power that we have been given.

What if there were women and LGBTQ students, alumni, and active preachers who were also deciders? Now, the final decision might not have changed. Seriously. They might have chosen to go ahead with Keller for the several reasons that the online world mentioned (spirit of Kuyper, other past Kuyper Award winners who weren’t fully aligned with Princeton’s stances, the nature of the award itself, likening Keller to other leaders, namely the Pope. Should he not be given an award just because of the Catholic Church’s stance on women and LGBTQ issues? and many more). If that had been the case and they went ahead with the award, think of how full-bodied, multi-voiced, and nuanced the announcement of the award could be. There might have still been an outcry, but I firmly believe it would have raised more questions and fostered more dialogue and would have cared for women and LGBTQ students in the process. (My next blog post is on being a woman, so I’ll save my opinions on that for later!)  Or perhaps more likely, they would have anticipated, using empathy and experience, that for this particular seminary at this particular moment in time, the award to Keller would cause profound pain. So much pain that maybe even speaking was too much for right now on the heels of an election that was devastating to many in that community. Or, maybe that new group of deciders would have had him just come and speak and (gasp!) actually use it as an opportunity to have some thoughtful dialogue and show students what that looks like in real time and in real life, not just 99 divisive comments on a Facebook feed.

The second decision of the past couple of weeks that blew me away was someone’s decision to have Kendall Jenner hand a police officer a can of Pepsi. I had heard wind of the ad and the objections to it. When my husband showed it to me I was dumbfounded and guess what came out of my mouth? “Who decided that was a good idea?” Then I went on to think about ALL of the decisions that led to development and eventual birth of that advertisement—the creative team, copywriters, actors, actresses, Jenner. What if Jenner, on hearing the final idea said, “Hmm…I don’t know if I can be a part of this.  It seems like kind of a slap in the face to all of the people who are protesting out of a lifetime of deep pain and systemic racism. I’ll give the millions back.”  Again, I have NO idea of the organization structure of Pepsi Co. Is there the “buck stops here” person who gives the final “go”—a position I would not envy in the least, btw? Was there a board or group of people who approved this ad? If so, my questions again would be who is on that board? Is there one person who has experienced the pain of being black in this country? Does that person have any power or sway? More importantly, is there just one person or are there MANY–is there clear multi-voiced representation from the black community who would…here’s my favorite word again….ANTICIPATE that an ad like that might be tone-deaf at best and truly hurtful at worst?

A spokesperson for Pepsi graciously said they were making an attempt to “unify” but “clearly missed the mark.” It seems that organization after organization keeps doing just that—completely missing the mark and then needing to cause more pain to a completely other demographic by going back on what they did and said in the first place. (I will always think back to World Vision in 2014—a situation that left so many people reeling and absolutely broke my heart for so many). The Pepsi ad is a meta example of intent vs. impact—I truly believe that there were some good intentions there, but good intentions will never be enough. Without listening, breathing the same air, caring the same things and truly understanding and anticipating how people might respond, all you will have is good intentions met with more vitriolic disagreement above the carnage of people whom you’ve actually hurt. And without changing the way the deciders decide and who is deciding, we will continue making this same mistake over and over and over again.

Even if the actual decisions don’t change, the way those decisions are made and communicated can dramatically lesson the impact they have and can pave the way for invitations—invitations to learn, listen, grow, and maybe experience enough of someone different to say at the very least, “I think I am right, but I might be wrong. Let’s keep talking about this.” Organizationally, and with a team of deciders, what might it look like to ask, what do we want “most” right now? To foster a relationship of trust with our students? To affirm Tim Keller? To teach our students the importance of thoughtful dialogue and civil discourse? To try and lighten the collective mood with a can of Pepsi? To communicate that you are a company that is aware of current issues? To actually sell more cans of Pepsi to more people?  So…to all of you deciders (which is all of us, though our decisions might seem more “mini” than guest speakers and soda ads), listen to those voices with your whole body–with every fiber of your being, listen to their whole embodied lives, make your decisions reflect that you have actually listened prior to making a decision and most importantly, let them be the deciders.

Happy Deciding, friends.



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