Making Tough Leadership Decisions

Making Tough Leadership Decisions

One reason hard decisions are hard is because they might negatively impact people around you. Tough decisions might actually hurt people, their feelings, their relationship with you, their life path - through no fault of their own.

Avoiding hard decisions or passing the buck doesn’t actually help. (Nor does ramping up your energy to blame others, the circumstances, the state of the world, the fates, your teammates, the past...)

I’ve seen too many leaders talk themselves into avoiding doing what they know they need to do because that somehow felt easier to them - and the result was devastating for those people around them...perhaps worse for everyone involved and definitely more toxic and pervasive than the effect would have been if they made tough choices in the first place.

One area where I see this come up is around enforcing organizational policy when it comes to a star teammate. I see this happen in sports where the star player has their violations of team rules (attendance, bullying, committing crimes, etc) swept under the rug by the time they need to compete again. The same thing happens in organizations where the “the face of the organization” or the high earner/top seller/best producer somehow never shows up on time or engages cruelly with teammates or has unethical practices. All these foibles aren’t secrets and they’re not foibles - they’re spotlights on leadership failure.

Beyond avoiding detailing with the obvious troublemakers there’s the leadership conundrum of having to tell good people bad news. Maybe conditions changed, maybe there’s a new strategic direction, maybe there are other factors evolving and it’s up to you to tell some good people news you know they don’t want to hear. Really good people. The people you know well and care about - you know, friends. This is another place where I see leaders jeopardize an entire team or organization or mission or goal or project so they don’t have to deliver bad news to people they like. Someone needs to be cut from their spot on the team, someone needs to be let go from the organization, these things happen all the time but are still bungled by leaders who elevate their own comfort and relationships over the team/organization/mission/goal. There’s no easy quick solution to telling good people bad news - it takes leadership.

Ok, so hard things are hard and leadership is leadership - so….thanks for nothing? In both of these types of situations, there are some guiding principles that can help.

  • A clear understanding of your goal - if this goal is shared with everyone around you then more folks understanding the common purpose that brings you together. Common purpose means individual discomfort is sometimes necessary. Leading means maintaining momentum toward the shared goal - even when it’s hard to get there.

  • Integrity in communication. Sugarcoating things only placates the ego of the person delivering the unwelcome news. And, spoiler alert, no one thinks your a hero if you want them to “just take the hint” that is somehow encoded in passive-aggressive actions - if they can even figure out what you’re saying in the first place. If someone isn’t making the cut - tell them, directly. If you have made a decision that you know is necessary but also unpopular - be clear about your reasons and process.

Obviously, people might not agree with you or might get defensive or might respond poorly. (Welcome to the school of real leadership.) Their response the moment they hear the news is likely not a well thought out response that takes into account your common purpose. That doesn’t make it hurt less but hopefully you didn’t compound the hurt with the confusion of wishy-washy trust-destroying communication or blame.

At the end of the day, leadership isn’t about taking the path of least resistance or placating everyone around you. Leadership failures in making tough decisions can doom an enterprise - either by losing track of common goals or disintegrating the culture to the point of unproductivity. Either way, the organization implodes.

Instead, make the common purpose explicit and communicate directly with integrity. Hard things will still be hard but at least you won’t make it even worse for the humans who trust you to lead.