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Memphis Daily News
Discernment: The Hallmark of Great Leaders
February 16, 2015
By Dr. Mary C. McDonald

A good leader must be good at decision-making. A great leader must be good at discerning prior to making that decision.

Discernment is the ability to go past the mere perception of something and understand people, things or situations clearly and intelligently, making judgments about nuances often obscure or overlooked by others. It is a skill that makes the difference between leadership and just being in charge.

To be able to sift through the apparent contradictions in situations and recognize what’s really going on should be a skill developed by every leader.

There is a tale I heard years ago that has, on more than one occasion, allowed me to recognize the difference between decision-making and discernment, and the contradictions that surround us every day.

A young girl was walking through the woods on a cold winter day when she heard a voice call out, “Girl, help me!”

She looked down and saw a snake at her feet. The snake cried out, “Please help me. The ground is frozen and I am cold. If I stay down here I will freeze to death. Please pick me up and put me under your coat. It is warm there.”

The girl looked at him and said, “No, I can’t pick you up; you’re a snake. If I put you under my coat you will bite me and I will surely die.”

“No,” said the snake, “I will not bite you, I promise. I just want to stay warm.”

The girl looked with pity at the snake. He seemed harmless as he shivered on the cold ground. Although she knew better, she felt sorry for the snake and she gave in to his pleas.

“Alright,” she said. “I’ll take you with me and keep you warm. But remember your promise.”

So the girl picked up the snake and drew him to her. As she wrapped her coat around him, the snake bit her and she fell to the ground. As her life slipped away, she cried to the snake, “Why did you bite me? You promised you would not hurt me. You lied to me.”

“What did you expect?” the snake hissed as he slithered away. “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”

It happens in leadership. Everything you know is often tested in the only way, time and place available. Your test is not in what you believe, but in your response to the contradiction in the present moment.

Who do you trust not to do no harm? What situations do you put yourself in that will only serve to destroy you or those you lead? Even the perceived comfort of the status quo can fool you into believing that you are in control. Even your best intentions can deceive you with perverse righteousness that makes wrong seem like right. How do you keep the snakes at bay?

There are many attributes ascribed to good leaders. Discernment is a hallmark of the great ones.

Contact Dr. Mary C. McDonald, a national education consultant, at 574-2956 or visit

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