1. Fernandez, Claudia S. P.

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Leading in "the gray zone" is one of the toughest challenges leaders and managers face. This is when there is no clearly correct path to follow. These are times when what is right to do is not exactly regulation to do. It is when following policy is the clear road to disaster, but deviating is to blaze a new and unproven trail. The risks can be high, and good judgment is critical.


The issues in the gray zone are nearly always about people and not policy, product, or efficiency. Leaders who believe that people are our most important asset are likely to find themselves operating in this zone far more often than those who focus solely on measures and metrics. These people-are-the-asset leaders work hard to foster good relationships in their organizational culture and to ensure that individuals feel committed to the company or team. Certainly, leaders need to uphold the rules, but at times leaders also need to be able to bend the rules to meet the higher goals of the organization. Poor leaders do this to be above the law and to meet their own personal goals for power or control. Great leaders know when and how to bend the rules to save the situation, to save the team, and sometimes to save a person.


Leading in the gray zone is best taught by example rather than by list. Thus I share with you one of the most poignant leadership stories that I have had the privilege to hear in my role as an executive coach. This is the story of a public health leader serving our country in the Middle East. This is her story of amazing leadership in the gray zone.


Simone James* understands the value of her most important asset: people. She works in state government in


Georgia and has been a member of the National Guard since she was in her early 30s. At 51, she is a fit, commanding, and beautiful woman. She and her husband, Randall, have no children, but she describes all the soldiers she nurtures as "my kids." Indeed, most of them are young enough to be her children.


Simone is passionate about serving the United States. She has served her country many times and in many ways. Iraq was just one experience. Getting a 1-hour notice that she was being deployed in the war sensitized her to the extreme disruptions to normal life happening for many guardsmen-taken away from family, job, home, friends, responsibilities-often with little time to prepare emotionally. "I remember my cell phone went off when Randall and I were out to dinner," she laughed. "I was shocked. I didn't know the call was coming!! I didn't even have time to go home and get my uniform, much less a toothbrush!! But I figured, heck, they'll outfit me when I get there. So off we went to the airport. Off I went to Kuwait!! I said goodbye to my husband. I didn't see Randall again for a year."


Simone and I talked a lot about many of the topics I have written about in this column over the last year. We talked about the concept of positional power versus personal power, about how good leaders create an organizational culture that welcomes a diverse group of team members, that embraces their talents, and that is tolerant of differences. We talked about how great leaders are often caring and creative individuals, not simply authority figures, who know when to follow the rules and when to bend them.


How can all of this fit in with military values? Easily. The military excels at creating strong bonds between people, bonds that help soldiers trust one another with their lives. Sometimes that means navigating in the gray zone. Simone shared with me one of her most important leadership experiences she had while in the Middle East.


She had been there for a few months, stationed at a deployment camp from which both US and Coalition Forces landed and then were moved into strategic positions in the Iraqi war zones. This was a place where emotions ran high because what the future held for any soldier was cloudy at best. Simone recounted that on this particular day she had not had a shower for 3 weeks. She felt hot, dirty, and exhausted. She had put in an 18-hour day and was on her way to her tent to try to sleep on a hard cot that was full of the ever-present sand. On her way she spotted a young woman huddled in the dark behind a barricade wall. She was sobbing, head down, M16 slung across her back. Simone felt that typical motherly pang that might not seem too typical in a commanding officer-and despite being exhausted and near tears herself, went to the crouching figure.


Amy had just arrived at the station. Only about 24 hours before, she had been nursing her 2-month-old girl infant back in the States, a girl infant who was taken from her arms as she had to board her transport to the Middle East. A baby girl she was terrified she would never see again. A baby girl who was now with her father, suddenly a new single parent afraid for the safety of his wife and the mother of his child. Two torn and overwhelmed young people both serving their country, both making a tremendous sacrifice, each in their own way.


Simone approached the young soldier. She listened to her story. She dried her tears. As a healthcare professional, Simone recognized that this was no mere case of homesickness. Certainly, this was a tough adjustment psychologically. But this was more than that. This woman had medical issues stemming from having given birth so recently and from such abrupt cessation of breast-feeding. The woman was dealing with possibly complex health issues at the same time as she was facing this great loss. This woman was in no condition to send to the front lines.


Simone escorted her to the Troop Medical Clinic, a large tent that serves the medical needs of the entire camp. It was obvious to Simone that Amy was engorged from having suddenly discontinued nursing. This is a very painful condition that can lead to an infection called mastitis and even death if untreated. After the solider received a checkup and medications to help her condition and prevent infection, Simone took her to the psychiatrist's tent to make sure this new mother was not suffering from postpartum depression. Post-partum depression is a serious medical condition that is no fault of the mother-yet it can cause her to do unpredictable and sometimes dangerous acts. It requires prompt treatment and careful medical attention. Amy got an assessment and the help she needed.


Hours later Simone, still dirty and now even more exhausted than before, took Amy back to her tent. She talked to her for a long time. She asked her where she was from, asked if she had talked to her husband since that rainy airport back in Mississippi. Tearfully Amy replied that she had not. "Ma'am," she added respectfully, "once we are 'boots on the ground' we have no phone access." Simone agreed that yes, that was true. The transient soldiers do not have such privileges. Even if pay phone banks are available for calling card use, the lines are long and the conversations are limited. But as an officer, Simone had a phone right there on her desk, a phone that could connect her to any place in the world. She asked Amy for her number back home. Amy shook her head, repeating, "Ma'am, I am not allowed to call home on a DSN line."


"But you aren't calling. I am. I need to know that things are OK there. I need to know that so that I can assess that you'll be OK, so I can release you back to your regular duties." Amy nodded, wiping her tear-stained cheeks. She gave her the number. Simone dialed.


The phone rang three times before a tired voice answered at the other end. A man's voice said hello. An infant was fussing in the background, but not crying.


"Is this lackson Anderson?"


"Yes, may I ask who this is?" he answered politely.


"My name is Commander Simone James. I am calling from Kuwait. Amy is fine, in fact she is right here. I am calling to see how you are doing?"


Stunned, he gave her the report. She asked about the infant. She was doing fine. Three poopy diapers since her mother had left. Jackson now wished he'd made Amy relinquish more of the diaper duty-she had wanted to do everything for the infant before she left. Jackson was on a steep infant-care learning curve. Simone smiled.


"I have someone here who would very much like to talk with you," Simone smiled. She handed Amy the phone.


"But Ma'am!! I'm not allowed[horizontal ellipsis]I'm not allowed to call[horizontal ellipsis]I'm[horizontal ellipsis]" longingly Amy stared at the receiver.


"You're not calling. I called. I'm the commanding officer and this is the course of action I deem the best and most appropriate to take at this moment."


She left Amy in private to have a few minutes of conversation with her husband. Amy sang her daughter a lullaby. Little Grace stopped fussing.


Simone could not describe Amy's thanks without getting teary-eyed herself. It was an incredible story of leadership-and of having the judgment to bend the rules when necessary to meet the overriding needs of a soldier. I asked Simone if she was in the right to make the call.


"Depends on what you mean by right," she answered calmly. "Was it regulation? No. I suppose I could get busted for that. But was it the right call to make? Yes. Undoubtedly. It was a necessary ingredient for this young woman to successfully make that transition from new mom to soldier. It was the right call to make. She had to have some closure, to know they were OK so she'd be OK."


I asked Simone whatever happened to Amy. She did not know. She never saw her again. The young mother was shipped out to Iraq the very next day.


Simone told me once long after, 'you know, I was full of dread but I checked that list of soldiers killed in the war, searching for a name I hoped never to see. I checked the list for 18 months, the length of Amy's


deployment. Although I never heard from her again, I never saw her name on 'the list.''


Simone's story is a touching, gut-wrenching story about the kind of leadership that makes tremendous impact in intangible ways. It exemplifies how excellent leadership knows when bending the rules-operating in the gray zone-is the most appropriate course to take. I can only imagine that "an army of one" had a whole new meaning for Amy after that experience. I can only conceive that the phrase "no one left behind" was more than phrase to her, more than a picture of the cavalry coming in with firearms brandished. After that long, dusty night in Kuwait Amy knew that the cavalry sometimes comes in the guise of a 51-year-old woman who has the sensitivity to know what you need in order to keep yourself together before you put yourself in harm's way in the name of freedom.


Simone James gives public health leaders a guiding light to follow when we find ourselves in the gray zone. May her story inspire you as it has me.


All names and particulars have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals featured in this story. [Context Link]