Leaders and Difficult Decisions


Leaders often have to make difficult decisions when there seems to be no good choice. How do you navigate these moments?

Hard choices come with the job of a leader. Our President and national leaders often face situations where there don’t appear to be many good choices. 

This dilemma of having to choose a best path when there doesn’t seem to be any good choices isn’t that unusual for leaders—or even individuals and families for that matter. I’ll initiate some thoughts and best practices, and then you the readers can critique and improve. Let’s see if we can actually come up with something that will help all of us, and who knows—maybe even be helpful to those who drink that funny water inside the DC beltway.

Check Your Mindset.

Mindsets drive behaviors which have either positive or negative outcomes, and mindsets are based on assumptions.  For example, facing tough decisions like this, I must assume that I don’t know everything that needs to go into the decision; so, I need the wisdom, knowledge, and experience of others who have relevant information and expertise on the subject. Getting the full picture will help objectively evaluate the various courses of action. This step also assumes that the decision-maker is willing to listen to diverse opinions and withhold judgment until appropriate information has been gathered and all advisors have been heard.

Get Everyone to Put on the “Big Hat.”

This means putting the needs/mission of the highest level of the organization first over individual parochial and political interests. I’ve heard the CEO of a Fortune 500 company lament that this was the biggest challenge with his management team of division presidents. They had problems taking off their division hat for the sake of the greater mission. If it’s true in business, imagine how much more so in government cabinets and congressional political parties. Complex, difficult decisions require a deft self-awareness of your personal motives and natural biases. If you can objectively make the best difficult decision—even when it may not benefit you personally—that is a hallmark of true sacrificial and honorable leadership.

Establish Ground Rules for the Management Team.

What is okay and what is not okay? How will we stay focused on the main thing? And, if I’m the senior leader, I make it clear that we need courage to speak up with dissent; there is no benefit from having “yes men/women” who won’t give their true opinion. And again, clarify your assumptions. A team that can have passionate, courageous debate (or as Patrick Lencioni calls it—“creative conflict”) is almost always a better environment for good decision-making.

Identify Your Sources of Counsel.

Start with your key managers and advisors. Decide if you need input from professional experts like a lawyer, CPA, engineer, or other specialist. Above all, get counsel from a diverse group and listen to them.

Clarify the Various Options. 

Which choices will best serve your highest aim/goal—whether it’s an organization or the ideals of a particular country or culture? What are the most likely outcomes with each? What are the potential unintended consequences? Play each option out as best you can to see the end results.

Courageously Make a Decision.

Since we said it’s a hard decision with not many good choices, it will take courage to decide and move ahead. Courage means making the right decision even when it doesn’t feel natural or safe. Overcoming fears to do what you know is right will enable you to courageously make a decision, and following the previous steps will help you make the best one.

Stay United and Execute the Decision.

Make sure that you have a unified message and communicate it to the lowest level of the organization.  Everyone should understand the logic you used and remind the team of the principle of unity (we have done our best and we all own this decision). Anything less is disloyalty and undermines the success of the organization.

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