Management Musings

Owning the Inflection Points

In ancient Rome, public wrestling and sport contests were held in places called palestras, where the phrase “Strip or Retire” (compete or quit), was etched into the stone overhead. Athletes competed in the nude because the Romans believed that if one wanted to enter the arena in search of glory, you had to wholeheartedly commit risking your reputation and well-being. In her book Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones, Carlin A. Barton explains that the “moment of truth” —the discrimen—for Romans came when you staked “what you were before the eyes of others.” The truth was embedded in challenge where it “was not so much revealed as created, realized, willed in the most intense and visceral way, the truth of one’s being, the truth of being.” There were no half measures in taking on a challenge or more broadly, in defending your position. According to Barton, a “radical presence” existed in the sensibilities of Romans such that “one held nothing back, that everything one had was at stake in one’s role.” “Authentic” Romans proved their sincerity by championing their position to the “end of the ordeal” despite any adversity that was faced. Thus, there was a force of legitimacy in the role an individual voluntarily accepted because of the belief that it was carried out with that social contract in mind.

An inflection point is a mathematical term referring to a point on a curve at which the line of the curvature changes. Competing as a Roman was to have what Nassim Nicholas Taleb described in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder “skin in the game” (sometimes quite literally); they pledged their livelihood on inflections that were affected by their decisions. What Taleb calls “true owners” have skin in the game because they reap the benefits and endure the costs (curvature changes) of a recommended action step (point on a curve) in response to a given circumstance or objective. To lead an organization requires that one responds to inflection points but, more importantly, creates them. Of course, because there is no way of assuring an intended outcome; decisions necessarily involve some degree of risk. But to be a leader with skin in the game (nota bene: “true” leader) means that one is personally impacted in the same or similar fashion as those who rely on their leadership and bear the consequences of their decisions. Today we are hard pressed to find leaders who fit Taleb’s “true owner” mold, considering how the vast majority of decision makers, particularly those in the public sector, are not generally held accountable for the policy choices they make. Knowing this, what is the court manager’s obligation of taking on any personal risk to institute bold organizational change, if the far safer option is to be content like most counterparts are with “participation trophies”? Or does the leadership role by virtue of the position itself require its occupant to be the progenitor for all that the court seeks to embody in principle notwithstanding the absence of “true owners” in the profession?


Despite my manifest failure to develop a green thumb, I tried yet again to grow a small herb garden. I had had more discussions than I could remember with Toni in an attempt to draw on her knowledge and experience with starter plants, container material, potting soil, and the variety of care that was involved in harvesting herbs, but if success was measured only by what I actually yielded, then my efforts were to no avail. After Toni inquired how I was managing dabbling in the dirt, I took the opportunity to invite her over so that she could see for herself and hopefully provide additional guidance.

Never coming empty-handed, even when her visits were entirely for my benefit, she asked that I have a pot of hot water ready because she was bringing some darjeeling tea that her neighbor had brought back as a gift from India. I prepared a medley of hors d’oeuvres on a charcuterie board that included an olive tapenade, roasted garlic cashew mash, pickled red onions, peach chutney, curry roasted almonds, almond seed crackers, and sliced vegetables. Toni dipped a cracker into the tapenade and strolled over to the sliding glass door where I had positioned the seedling trays on a folding table. I poured us a cup of darjeeling, which pared exceptionally well with the spicy flavorings of the appetizer food. “These are great, but what will make these even better is when the herbs you’re growing are a part of the ingredients,” she joked.

“Help get me there, Toni.”

“From what I can tell, you’ve done a good job getting these started. I can see a number of them have begun sprouting,” she stated pointing to the few that displayed signs of life. “Your timing is also right, since the last spring frost was about a month ago. Here’s a secret, since you’ve started these indoors: when they get a little larger, gently run your hand over them periodically—this helps the plant to get a stronger stem. Outdoors this occurs naturally because of the wind.”

“Huh—that’s interesting.”

“Yes, and make sure that you rotate the trays on the regular so that the light source is equally distributed on all sides of the plant. And this time, make sure you call me before you transplant them into the garden.”

“I didn’t want to trouble you.”

“It’s no trouble at all—just make sure you prepare more of these hors d’oeuvres for me. I hate to see you go through all of this work only to be disappointed because of a final misstep.” She walked back over to the kitchenette area to pick through some more of the appetizers. “So, what’s the countdown as of today?” she asked, knowing that I recently accepted a chief administrator position and was moving to a different district.

“Nine more days—but I’ve been making decisions as though I’m already there,” I replied.

“Why’s that?”

“The former administrator retired unexpectedly, so the position has been vacant longer than it ordinarily would be.”

“I see. Anything major?”

“Not really, but I’m playing it very cautiously out of the gate. I’ve been told that the culture is quite different than the one I’m used to, and I can already tell that there’s going to be several changes that need to be made.”

“And I gather the chief judge is supportive of those changes?”

“She’s one hundred percent on board, but I want to take it slow because of the implications of moving too quickly.”

“By implications, you mean the adverse effect it can have on you personally?”

“Mostly—but I want to get to a place where people are comfortable with me.”

“That’s fine for the time being so long as you understand that in the long run it’s not about you.”

“How do you mean?”

“You’ve taken the job of leader, and in this capacity it’s less about you than it’s about the organization. The decisions you make should reflect that priority so that there’s a purposeful intent to put and keep the court on a trajectory toward an established vision. The same can be said for your personal goals, but what’s particularly important is that the actions you take as a leader affect the goals of others. Taking the easy way out should not be an option.”

“I get it.”

“Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying—I’m not suggesting that you go in there like gangbusters, but I also don’t want you to start off with the wrong frame of mind because of some perceived roadblocks. Obstacles—real or imagined—are inevitable, be they personal or professional. To get discouraged and decide that it’s easier to take the path of least resistance also sets a course whether you realize it or not.”

“No progress.”

“Exactly—you’ll be flatlining. And as more years pass it will be more difficult to pivot from the points you’ve established. To fully immerse yourself in the job you were hired to do, you must take ownership of the court’s trajectory. And that means managing the pivot points starting now. This involves risk certainly, but it’s how real leaders are distinguished.”

“As opposed to the type of leader who’s keeping the lights on.” 

“Right—there’s nothing wrong with simply being the caretaker if the person was brought on to maintain the status quo and avoid all personal risks at all costs. But that’s not what leaders are hired to do. At least not the real ones.”

“I’m not looking to burn the house down either.”

“Not purposefully of course, but that’s always a risk. Thoughtful and fully considered decisions can minimize that possibility.”

“Worst case scenario, I guess I can always begin again and take the lessons with me.”

“Yes—and while you may have failed, you will not have lost your integrity. Leaders who think in terms of days rather than years are hardly the nonpareils that they make themselves out to be. There’s nothing noble about a leader who decides against the right course of action because of personal inconvenience. The ones who deserve the distinction of the role are those who set a vision and then hold themselves accountable to the results. Only then can they be trusted to lead.”


Transactional people who are in leadership roles only accomplish, at best, whatever is presently being achieved. They are complacent, ensconced in customary practice and seek to maintain the status quo, however steeped in mediocrity it may be, because it mitigates personal risk. More venerable goals that seek to elevate and change the trajectory of the organization require greater exposure on the part of whoever is leading. Those who take on these challenges, sometimes even at their own professional and financial peril, are transformational. However few there may be, a transformational leader fulfills the role for which she was designated to fill because she is not easily wooed by the comfort that accompanies satisfactory performance. In Leading with Character, John J. Sosik describes the “four I’s of transformational leadership,” which he believes are indicative of true leaders:

  1. Idealized influence: exhibited by leaders who are role models and are admired and emulated by others because of character traits that are genuinely positive.
  2. Inspirational motivation: exhibited by leaders who inspire and positively influence others to pursue and accomplish goals by bolstering their confidence and operationalizing an articulable vision.
  3. Intellectual stimulation: exhibited by leaders who challenge the status quo and create an atmosphere in which improvement is perpetually sought.
  4. Individualized consideration: exhibited by leaders who spend significant time listening to understand stakeholder needs.

Applied to the court, transformational leadership characterizes an administrator who takes seriously the long-term global positioning of her institution. She oversees those events and implements a strategy that shifts (for better or worse) the direction of the organization. Moreover, she actively seeks to be judged by the measurable outcomes of the leadership arena that she voluntarily entered. Known for putting it all on the line, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt articulated in succinct fashion what it means to be in the arena in his famous “Citizenship in a Republic” speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat?

True leaders enter the arena and fully embrace its challenges. To remain a spectator after accepting the opportunity does an incredible disservice, because so many rely on the intentions of those who occupy that limited terrain that should be reserved for the very best among us.

And those are just some of my musings on management.


Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at