Leadership and Kite-flying

July 3rd, 2013 by Kelly Kienzle

Kites on beach

“If everything depends on context, how can you still have principles?”

This is a question asked of Sonia Sotomayor, as described in her autobiography, “My Beloved World”.  This question is asked of her in high school, when she is accused of arguing from multiple viewpoints, always seeing another angle or context from which a different argument could be made.  This pivoting to different perspectives leads her accuser to wonder whether Sotomayor has any principles at all on which she stands firm.

As leaders, we are asked to listen to all sides of an argument, analyze multiple angles of a strategy plan, or place ourselves on the client side of the table.  Yet, we are also asked to weigh in with our judgment and final decision.  How does one answer to both of these types of requests?  How do we remain flexible enough to account for context, yet also retain some guiding principles to mark our identity?

For me, I picture a kite being flown on the beach.  The wind will blow it in many directions, sometimes with smooth arcs, other times in quick, jerky dives.  Yet the kite string is firmly rooted by the person holding it on the beach.  The strength of the wind determines how far and where the kite may fly, but provided the string is strong enough, it always stays securely moored to its foundation.  So, too, must our opinions tack in different directions as the winds shift direction and strength, but a strong mooring to a fundamental set of values will keep us within familiar territory.

Following that analogy, the passage of time or dramatic changes in our environment may require us to move to a different part of the beach.  In other words, life’s learnings and significant events may occur which require us to adopt new principles or modify our old ones.  We must be willing to adapt even our fundamental principles when the winds no longer provide for us.

Sotomayor listed her mooring principles as “integrity, fairness and the avoidance of cruelty.”  For me, I would state empathy, truth and awareness.  What would you list?  What are the fundamental principles that keep you moored, yet still allow you to adapt for context?


“Who I am as a human being will, I hope, continue to evolve, but perhaps the essence is defined by now.”

– Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court

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