Gray Matters


Bill Sommers

Skip Olsen


In the song by the Mama and Papas, there is line, “All the leaves are brown…”  In working, leading, teaching, etc it seems like all the decisions are gray.  It is easy to live in a world or work in an organization and in living life where things are black and white.  HA.

Gray Matters because problems and decisions in life are not necessarily easy to see one correct way of responding.  Gray Matters because our brains are composed of white matter, gray matter, and the interactions of neural connections that makes our thinking strategies important.  Gray Matters because those of us who have experience, turning our hair gray if you will, can contribute pattern recognition that younger, bright people may miss.

Gray, not Black or White

We in education have seen the days of a curriculum focused on getting the kids ready for manufacturing.  Schools did a great job on integrating immigrants into the work force teaching basic skills.  The 70s and early 80s there was more emphasis on values and responsibility of being a citizen. As Joseph Badaracco (2016) said, “When you have to deal with a highly uncertain, high-stakes problem, you face a challenge, not just to your skills, but to your humanity.”


Then, 1983, Nation At Risk, the late 90s with Outcome Based Learning, 2000 with standards and the explosion of testing for one right answer.  This works in a slow changing culture.  How many of you believe our world will be less diverse, slowly changing, and one way of doing things will last?  Get Over It (Eagles Song).  The Times are a Changing (Dylan Song).

Diversity is usually associated with race, people of color, or ideology. And, those are important issues to address openly and forthrightly. We expand this frame of diversity as ‘diversity of thought.’ As diversity (including ways to learn, opinions v. facts, economy, etc) changes, we will require creative solutions and collaboration to every changing problems and an ever-changing world. We have said for twenty years we should be teaching creativity in schools.  Algorithms have served us well in the past and still have a place.  We need more heuristics which will add repertoire for solving messier problems.  As Einstein put it, we cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created the problem.

Yes, there are absolutes like the ten commandments, the golden rule, no guns or knives in schools, etc. Steve Sample (2002) said, “There is no infallible step-by-step formula for becoming an effective leader. “ One of his basic tenets is to think gray.  We have to think differently to solve new problems. We can hold on to our values AND still solve problems that confront us. When we are in the gray zone, it is seductive to look for algorithms or rely on analytical data techniques to explain the solution. We wish it were that easy.  Analytical skills are important AND insufficient if it is the only strategy we have for solving today’s problems.

Gray Matter, 40% of the brain

Gray matter is mainly composed of the actual neurons in our brain.  Our learning is dependent upon connecting those neurons. Those neurons that are firing together to create more automatic pathways which will be myelinated and become white matter,

So, gray matter is basically taking information, connecting it to other neurons, and strengthening the bonds.  When we help neurons to connect, thinking becomes more efficient.  The good news is we don’t have to relearn everything each time we are confronted with the same or similar issues.  The bad news is we occasionally rely on previous answers when confronted with similar circumstances with NEW components.

Gray Matter, experience helps

Scott Fitzgerald, “the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time while still retaining the ability to function.” This requires looking at the opposite viewpoint, listening to others who may have more knowledge or experience, and collaborating with a wider skill set than only people who share your beliefs. There are two elements that sometimes derail our best thinking.  One is “groupthink” as evidenced by the Challenger, New Coke, etc.  The other one is “Bossthink” where everyone looks to the leader to find out what s/he wants.  There is a story about Alfred Sloan, IBM.  He wanted feedback on a program he had thought would be good.  He looked at his table of senior executives.  Their answer was unanimous, ‘great idea Mr. Sloan.’  Sloan’s response was if everyone thinks alike, most of you are not necessary.  Go home and meet tomorrow. I want to know what is wrong with this idea before taking action.  John Gardner, (1990) said, “pity the poor leader who has unfriendly critics and uncritical friends.”  Amen. Humility and being open to feedback.  A great combination for leaders.

In today’s world, we have to be more vigilant about where we get information.  New sources like Wikipedia, etc can be extremely helpful.  One of the problems with the Internet is there is no fact checking.  It may or may not be true.  We are not advocating for ‘Big Brother.’  We are advising that we also teach how to check on the accuracy of the information before using it or passing it on to the world.

From out experience, there are some intended consequences of a decision or solution.  There are always unintended consequence from the same decision.  Gray thinkers look at the results of the decision before making the call to try and anticipate possible negative outcomes.


Badaracco posits five questions to ask when confronting the gray zone.

  1. What are the net, net consequences? This means the consequences of the decision, the unintended consequences
  2. What are my core obligations? Make sure the decision is within your purview and area of responsibilities.
  3. What will work in the world as it is? Sometimes we get caught up in the perfect future. Is the decision possible in the current conditions, not betting on the idea?
  4. Who are we? This can be a test of our own values as individuals, teams, and organization.
  5. What can I live with? The decision should be in alignment with your own beliefs and what is right for as many people as possible

“Dr. Hiam Ginott advised parents to teach their children the supreme importance of discerning and accepting reality, in order either to make peace with it or to attempt to change it. [i.e.] Don’t let children delude themselves about how the world and its people really work.”  Good advice for parents and educators.  The question becomes how do we prepare young people for the world where there are.

Ron Heifetz’s book, “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” Life in the Gray doesn’t have easy answers nor does it have silver bullets.  Those who continue to look for “THE” answer will continue to be frustrated.  Those who seek to find multiple solutions and a wide range of problem-solving strategies will be better positioned to learn, teach, and lead schools.

Samples again has some prophetic advice. “An institution cannot copy its way to excellence rather, true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches. If you want to transform a troubled neighborhood, start with safe streets and good public schools; the rest will follow.”


Badaracco, Joseph. (2016). Managing in the Gray.  Boston:  Harvard Business Press.

Gardner, J.  (1990).  On leadership.  New York:  The Free Press, Inc.

Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers.  Cambridge, MA:Belknap Press.

Sample, Steven. (2002).  The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.  San Francisco: