MAD LAMBS: CEO Survival Skills for Corona and Beyond

Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash

By Mark S. Freedman

Okay, what is this MAD LAMBS business? Perhaps those fluffy little creatures being led to the alter for sacrifice in days of yore? Shivering lamb chops in a Costco freezer? Or maybe Mary and her little lamb not knowing where to go?

No to all.

It is an acronym for Mediate, Arbitrate, Dictate – Leadership And Management Basic Strategies. Now that I have cleared up any confusion, you might ask “so Mr. Freedman what are your credentials allowing you to expound on this topic?” Well, I have none other than serving in a CEO capacity for three Jewish organizations for nearly three decades. I have no advanced academic degree in leadership or management for nonprofits. My main influencers, in no particular priority order are Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth and George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans, for those of you readers getting a bit skittish about my gender balance here.)

I only read books on leadership/management under duress. I do not regularly contemplate getting from good to great, do not pay much attention to who is on the bus and who is off the bus, nor did I spend much time wondering who moved my cheese.

That is more than enough on my lack of credentials. Let me get to the main points here.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a feedback session with a Jewish professional. I suggested during the session that a CEO needs to rely on three core skills to be maximally effective in any climate – crisis mode as in today, relative calm as in almost never and generally chaotic as in almost always. Let me be clear, these are not abstract or arbitrary survival skills, I relied upon them and used them during my entire professional career.

Mediate, Arbitrate and Dictate. Each of these skill-set actions are linked to the key relationships forged and maintained by any competent CEO. Notice I did not mention successful, I will get to that later.

Mediation is the cornerstone and foundational skill leading to an effective relationship between the CEO and the Board of Directors to whom he/she reports. And that applies all the way from the board president/chair to the least engaged board member who never utters a word at meetings. Mediation is an art form as much as a science and its key elements are comprised of negotiation, delegation, clear explanations, and realistic expectations.

Think about it for a second. A CEO engagement with the Board of a nonprofit begins and ends with negotiation. “How long will I work for you?” “How much will I be paid?” “What happens when I leave?” And everything in-between is grounded in negotiation – what will be on the meeting agenda, how often we will meet, how long is each meeting and all the in-between meeting activities. What activities or customs are we going to change and how will that change happen? The beauty of being a mediator as a CEO is you have lots of options – you can manage decision-making timelines, suggest and garner additional resources leading to decision-making, carefully intervene to re-align disparate views and opinions among board members, and perhaps most important of all – mediate with your key leadership who will be the good cop and the bad cop in conveying decisions to organizational constituents.

Mediators must resist the temptation to keep all the eggs in the CEO basket. Delegation of responsibility is vital to keep board members engaged in a constructive and productive manner. Mediators who ignore this important task risk the greatest of all CEO sins, overseeing an apathetic board. I have been to a handful of board meetings like this, it is worse than a root canal! (My apologies to the endodontists who might be reading this!)

The last two CEO mediation skills, clear explanations, and realistic expectations are more subtle but equally essential when paired with negotiation and delegation. Clear explanations and realistic expectations operate as a functioning pair. In communicating with your board avoid jargon as much as possible, do not present oral reports that would require footnotes to comprehend and do not respond to a question with a question in return. (I personally find that to be really irritating!) Think of it this way, as a mediator you have the ability to establish the length of your explanation, the timing of your explanation, the targeting of the explanation and its conciseness. Be sure to observe the same basic rules with written explanations.

Finally, as I conclude my reflections on mediation skills with a board, we arrive at realistic expectations that need to be communicated through clear explanations. It is pretty simple – do not tell your board it will happen tomorrow, whatever it is, if you believe it will happen next Tuesday … or beyond. Nothing wounds or permanently injures the credibility of a CEO than setting, offering, or even speculating unrealistic expectations.

Bottom line-a CEO who successfully uses mediation skills with the board is likely to be a successful CEO.

For the purposes of this particular essay, I will be brief in discussing the CEO role in Arbitrating and Dictating. I plan to write more about these skills in future essays.

My view is that in managing and leading organizational staff the CEO should serve in an arbitrator’s capacity. In the traditional nonprofit organization, the board hires and supervises the CEO and the CEO hires, manages, and leads the staff. If you happen to be the CEO of a nonprofit that does not adhere to this model, you might want to mediate that set of circumstances with the board.

Arbitration is a far easier skill to master than mediation. Quite simple, listen to all sides of an issue with any staff involved in that issue, be diplomatic and respectful, weigh the circumstances after all sides have been heard and MAKE A DECISION! Let things fester and you will be pulling your hair out. I guarantee this will happen. There is no significant harm that will befall you in being affirmative, even single-minded if that is necessary. And equally as important, be clear in articulating that arbitrated issues, once resolved, are done with. Yes, the arbitrator’s skill set can be easy to master, the real skill comes from sustaining arbitrated decisions and maintaining staff equilibrium and positive morale going forward.

Dictate. What is that all about? The CEO as dictator? You bet. A competent CEO should at most times be prepared to dictate to the general public and most especially with the media. Be as transparent as you must be with your board and staff and with other entities that hold you accountable (e.g. independent audits, IRS-990s, etc.) But communicating with outside entities means staying on message, constantly articulating, and reinforcing the vision, mission, goals, and accomplishments of the organization. If the CEO is the organization’s chief or primary spokesperson (and I believe strongly the CEO should occupy that role) be prepared to dictate all of your good works just like you might dictate into a recording device. Practice this skill, it does not come naturally to many CEOs. It is okay, you can admit it, that is the only way you will get better at it.

Now, for those of you sticking with this essay will remember I stated earlier that acquiring these CEO skills would make for a competent CEO but not necessarily a successful one. It is similar to following a recipe precisely as written in a cookbook and your final product turns out just awful. Well, I cannot wave a magic wand and guarantee success if you follow some or all of my advice. There are just too many variables in today’s uncertain nonprofit world that mitigate against any one individual’s or an organization’s ultimate success. What the successful CEO would likely do is incorporate their MAD skills while considering how they would use each of them as random and unpredicted events and issues arise, and we all know from brutal experience that this will happen. The question becomes, how will the successful CEO measure up to the challenge and how does that look different from CEOs who fail?

Mark S. Freedman is an independent consultant living in Parkland, Florida who served in the past as CEO of the Nashville and San Antonio Jewish Federations. He currently serves on the North American Board of Directors of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and he also is a member of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the South Palm Beach County Jewish Federation. He can be contacted at