Three zones. The "think for me" zone, the "help me think differently" zone, and the "there but not there" zone.
Communication and Being Connected, Education, Inspiration, leadership, Personal Growth, School culture

Leading in the Gray Zone

Sometimes there is black and white in leadership. But, where does true leadership live?

Looking at leadership in terms of three zones has been helpful for me as I work to continuously grow and better serve the people who count on me. I actually started this post about a year ago and have been thinking about it ever since, just hesitating because I wasn’t sure exactly how to communicate my thoughts, reflection, and growth.

I see leadership in three zones, as illustrated in the graphic below. Each of the zones are important to effective leadership, yet there is just one zone that effective leaders call home.

Three zones. The "think for me" zone, the "help me think differently" zone, and the "there but not there" zone.


Leaders who live in the “Think for me” zone tell their people exactly what to do and how to do it. They see things in terms of right and wrong, my way or the highway. They struggle to really listen to others and rarely make changes based upon the feedback they receive. They may go through the motions of listening but it feels like it goes in one ear and out the other.

These leaders ask questions but it really feels more like a “guess the answer in my head” game rather than a true question. There is often fear in the environment because people are afraid of being called out for doing something the wrong way.

Leaders who visit the “Think for me” zone recognize that there are times when things are right and wrong, like when student physical and emotional safety is concerned. There are questions that are asked that have just one right answer and leaders who know those answers or who can find the answers have more trusting relationships with the people they serve.

Leaders who ignore the “Think for me” zone are often the same ones who live in the “There but not there” zone. They are viewed as weak and wishy-washy. Staff may love this type of leader at first because of the freedom they feel, but those feelings are quickly replaced with frustration and the environment can become toxic because of the divisions created due to the lack of leadership.


The “Help me think differently” zone leaders are continually thinking about what others are thinking and feeling. These leaders don’t want to make too many decisions for people because they know that does not produce sustainable change. The learning and growing must happen within the people they serve in order for it to be true growth and change.

Gray zone leaders continuously hone the craft of listening. They often paraphrase what someone says to make sure they really heard the person. They follow that with more questions or a brainstorming session. Or, if the feedback was hard to hear, they avoid a defensive or emotional response by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing that with me. Let me think about what you’ve said and follow up with you tomorrow.”

These leaders think about the gray matter in the heads of those they serve. They know that the smartest person in the room is the room and that it takes putting all their brilliant brains together in collaboration in order for the best ideas to come forward. The “Help me think differently” leaders are not only okay with their own ideas being shot down for a better idea from someone else, they actually celebrate when that happens.

Leaders who live in the gray zone want their people to fail because it is a sign of risk-taking and trying new things. They publically model clumsily working through something new and failing to help set the tone that failure is so much better than never trying new things. They take responsibility for the problems that arise and they give credit to those they serve for the successes.

These leaders are happy and open and they know that they are supported by a team. They are never too busy for a conversation, and they focus their time on things that only the leader can do and work to delegate the other tasks. They visit the “Think for me” and “There but not there” zones as necessary because they know that their people deserve black and white answers in certain situations and that their people deserve some autonomy and freedom. They quickly recognize when they have visited those other zones too long because they are constantly talking with the people they serve to get a read on the culture.

Leaders who ignore the gray zone are the ones who are stressed out and feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders. They often feel alone and afraid. They quickly become defensive when their ideas are shot down or if they are given feedback that is hard to hear, and this is often because they are barely hanging on and they are afraid that one more thing might throw them over the edge.


The “There but not there” zone leaders could be described as “laissez faire” leaders. Anything goes because these leaders are there but not really there. When staff has a “Think for me” leader they dream of having a “There but not there” leader. Until it actually happens, that is. When it comes down to it, staff would probably prefer being told what to do than not being told anything of substance at all.

These are the leaders who swoop in and campaign for trust and relationships by blasting the leader who preceded them. Who promise things will be different but don’t really have a picture of what different means. They are very, very busy but everyone is unsure of what they actually spend their days doing. They wear their busyness like a badge of honor and use it as a shield to defend themselves against harsh feedback or difficult decisions.

There are important times to visit the “There but not there” zone because freedom and independence is an essential part of a need-satisfying environment for staff. Leaders who live in the gray zone but vist the “There but not there” zone help people feel like they have enough freedom and enough support. In education, teachers thrive on the creative freedom they have to decide how to teach the what to their students and it is crucial that they are allowed that freedom in order to grow and challenge themselves.

Those who ignore the “There but not there” zone create an environment where others feel like they cannot function without constant input from them. Staff members second guess themselves all the time and spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what their leader is thinking of them.

Effective leadership lives in the gray zone and visits the other zones.

There is no black and white, no one-size-fits-all solution when we are working with the beautiful hearts and minds of people. Leaders who take up residency in the gray zone know this all too well. Selfless gray zone leaders focus on what those around them need to succeed. They know that “support” means different things to different people, and it means different things in different situations. Gray zone leaders create an environment that feels good, even while everyone is working through the ups and downs that come with a focus on continuously improving.

I err on the side of being too gray and I don’t visit the “Think for me” zone frequently enough. I am currently focusing on clarity to support the people I serve, and that means regularly making a few more trips to the “Think for me” zone.

I would love to learn from you. Please share the connections you made to the three zones and what your next step is for continuous growth. Tag me on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook with @AllysonApsey or #SerendipityEDU.

If you’d like to learn more with me, check out The Path to Serendipity on the Dave Burgess Consulting website to read the first few chapters or to order the book.

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