Leadership Lessons from a Mystical Clown

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve thought a lot about leadership, first in a series of meetings in New Orleans, and then because of some matters in Manchester. Over this time, I’ve gotten praise—some of it even deserved—for my leadership “style.” I use the quotation marks, because my “style” is being myself. Praising that is like flattering Shaquille O’Neal for being good at being tall—he didn’t have much choice, really, and neither do I.

Since I was 28 and became director of an alternative school, I’ve spent 22 years in leadership positions. In none of them was I a traditional, by-the-book, let’s-tighten-things-up-here-or-heads-will-roll kind of leader. My friend, long-time boss and mentor, Mark Roth, was once asked to give me a reference. At the end of Mark’s comments, the interviewer tried to sum things up: “Sounds like Keith’s a real no-nonsense kind of guy.”

“God, no!” said Mark. “You misunderstand me. Keith’s all nonsense; he’s just clear about what kind of nonsense he wants.”

Hence, a clown, and yet also a mystic, believing life has meaning, magic is real, and humans can transform themselves from empty bags of need to overflowing bodies, minds and spirits of generosity. As long as they don’t stop laughing at themselves and everything about them.

Still, having folks reach out to ask my advice on running nonprofits is better than a sharp stick in the eye—or indictments being handed down—so at some readers’ request I’ve put together some things I believe about me and nonprofit leadership.

Your results may vary.

  1. Take responsibility for anything that happens in the organization.

Harry Truman was not our greatest president. Abraham Lincoln was. While I want to be Lincoln, that’s kind of like setting the Buddha as my goal: aspirational but not always helpful on a minute-by-minute basis. Truman, on the other hand, a man thrust into greatness, offers American pragmatic life lessons as prescribed by William James, John Dewey and Charles Pierce: an idea is true if it works.

“The buck stops here” is one of the most realistic and responsible statements ever uttered by an American leader, and applies to nonprofit leaders in particular. As the boss, I am responsible for whatever my organization does, and I take full ownership for that. It doesn’t matter if I was lied to or misled by people who work for me; it doesn’t matter if I had no idea what was going on; it doesn’t matter if I didn’t fully understand the implications of our actions: I put on the cloak of leadership so I wear the cold blanket of blame when things go wrong.

As you can ask any number of former employees, I will hold them responsible in private, including firing them. To the world, though, the problems of the nonprofit are mine.

  1. When you make a mistake, admit it right away and try to offer solutions or ways to return to normal.

I am an alcoholic in recovery, and one of the first things I learned when I got sober is, “It’s not screwing up that leads you back to a drink. It’s refusing to admit you screwed up that gets you drunk.” Absolutely true, and not just about drinking. I make mistakes all the time and therefore I confess all the time. The funny thing is, when you’re honest about your mistakes, do your best to fix them, and try to find new mistakes to make instead of repeating old ones, the people around you start to look at you as good and honest and competent.

  1. Keep behavior flexible while maintaining inflexible values.

I think almost anything is worth trying to see if it works. From good ideas (starting an improv theater with “at-risk” teenagers; organizing


film festivals with movies directed by high school dropouts; stepping away from federal funding at Liberty House; refusing to appear on stage with politicians) to not-so-good ideas (six-hour long bus rides with teenagers to go camping; trying to make a working raft a la Huck Finn to float down the Contoocook River; paying Liberty House residents to do work at the place they lived, I’ve tried to live by Truman’s credo:  We’ll try some things, and if they don’t work, we’ll try some other things.

While behavior is flexible, values aren’t.

At Liberty House, maintaining a sober community was one of my bedrock values. It’s hard enough for a newly sober man or woman to stay that way, but being surrounded by serial slippers and sippers makes it extraordinarily difficult. On the other hand, I believe every person with an addiction can find a way out, if not on the first or fifth try, then on the 20th. Hence, a mantra I’m sure people have tired of hearing me utter: Zero Tolerance but Infinite Hope.

In life, the means don’t justify the ends–the means are the end. What we do and why we do it matter more than our goals, because they determine our goals. The logic behind one obvious credo—you can’t lie your way to honesty any more than you can screw your way to purity—applies across the board. No matter what, you don’t lie—and if you do, you fess up right away—you don’t blame others, you don’t cut corners and you don’t bully. More on values later, but for here the message is to behave like the person you want to be instead of the person you may have been in the past.

  1. Seek a Vision. Nourish that Vision. Trust your Vision.

When you’ve got skin in the game, it shows. Your vision is your touchstone, your goal and your energy, helping you persuade instead of simply issuing orders.

For not being much of a God guy, I do find a lot of good lines in the Bible, and one of my favorites comes from Proverbs: Without a vision, the people perish. And so does the leader. While the waves on top of my oceanic vision rise and fall, the currents and tides have remained constant for decades: helping create a community where people look each other in the eye with respect and regard, where learning and growth are fostered and praised, and where the weakest are protected from the stronger and the strongest are protected from themselves.

  1. Energy and Attitude are Choices.

Simple. Simple. Simple. Be present. Be grateful. Demonstrate your passion. Give more than you take. Hustle and be the hardest worker on the team. We are what we do, and leadership grows from your behavior, not your position.

Reading over what I’ve written so far, I don’t disagree with myself, but I don’t see my love of goofiness, of lightness, of laughter for chrissake. Life is short; death is long: laugh until your throat hurts, laugh some more, and then get back to the goddamned work of creating a community. And, finally: Dammit, you’ve gotta be kind.

Note:  A stranger and almost unidentifiable version of the ideas above appears as my life mission statement: “What It Is: a mission statement in a Keatsian voice.” It has no jokes and few specifics, but it is one of the few things I’ve ever written of which I am unreservedly proud.


4 responses to “Leadership Lessons from a Mystical Clown”

  1. Re paragraph 4: Magic is really science that works well, something only seems magical when we don’t know the science behind the veil of ignorance.


  2. Well said, brother. I am one to take myself lightly, especially in a management scenario.
    My two management mantras are “put the employee forward for wins, but put myself forward for failures” and “praise in public, reprimand in private.”


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