Have you ever heard somebody say that they would never want to be President of the United States of America? I have heard this expressed many times. Why? Aside from giving up all privacy during a grueling campaign, most of the people I know who have said this explain that they would not want to have such enormous burdens placed on their shoulders, and they often cite how quickly past presidents seemed to age while in office. Such conversations serve as a reminder that leadership is hard, and it brings with it a lot of responsibilities.
People in any type of a leadership role already understand this, of course. They also know that difficult decisions will need to be made occasionally as part of the burden of providing effective leadership. So what can we do to ensure that the hard choices we make are the right ones? Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to guarantee that every decision we make turns out well, but the following five tips will help us arrive at the most carefully considered determinations possible and provide us greater chances of success.
Tip #1: Gather all the information you can. Drawing on the experience and knowledge of your team or employees will likely give you a clearer picture of the problem and the potential consequences of each course of action. It is also wise to look outside your organization to learn as much as you can about the topic or situation. Making a truly informed decision begins with doing research and thoroughly examining the data available to you.
Tip #2: Have a process in place for evaluating the information you have gathered. The type of process or approach you take may vary based on the situation at hand, but have a set of standards in place to make accurate appraisals of what you have learned so you can make a better and—importantly—more justifiable decision based on the evidence. For example, you may want to establish criteria for determining whether investment opportunities are worthwhile or develop a list of characteristics you seek in a new hire in order to judge each candidate based on how many of those characteristics they satisfy. Standardizing your decision-making processes as much as possible will allow you to make sounder, more consistent judgments.
Tip #3: Try to remove yourself from the situation. This suggestion may seem counterintuitive given that the previous tips encourage actively engaging in research and developing criteria for evaluating data. However, it is always a good idea to step back to examine how solid your reasoning has been and to search for biases in your thinking before making a final decision. Since you don’t want your emotions to be the primary impetus of your decision-making, you should reflect on how your feelings may have impacted your approach to the problem. You also need to consider how your decision may emotionally or, in some instances, politically impact those who will be affected by it. Take time outside of the office or your immediate work environment to meditate on both the short-term and long-term effects of each choice. Additionally, seek the counsel of trusted people who can serve as sounding boards for your concerns. Discussing the pros and cons of each course of action with someone divested from the outcome can offer you a clear outsider’s perspective of the situation that may not be possible to attain otherwise.
Tip #4: Don’t procrastinate. After doing your research, evaluating the data, and giving yourself time for reflection and counsel, proceed in making a timely decision. This is especially true if you have learned everything necessary to come to a proper conclusion and if there are no other outlying factors to consider. Inaction and delay can be costly because you run the risk of allowing circumstances to change and dictate a potentially more hasty and suboptimal move later. Furthermore, putting off a decision or concealing it from your team may not give them the time they need to adequately adjust to changes that will affect them. Giving staff advance notice to prepare for the new realities of the situation should make for a smoother transition and will likely prevent them from feeling blindsided, which can always lead to a rise in resentment and hostility among the ranks.
Tip #5: Be accountable. As the person with the final say in the matter, it is advisable to take ownership of the decision you have made and be willing to explain why you have chosen this path. Showing others how you arrived at your conclusions can prevent harmful rumors from spreading because transparency leaves little room for wild speculation. In addition, your explanations can demonstrate to those who are most negatively affected by the decision that you have given considerable, careful thought to the matter, which may in turn give you an opportunity to express your empathy for those adversely impacted by the outcome or satisfy the objections of those who disagree with you. While you should not waste too much time and energy justifying yourself to employees or those you lead, keeping the lines of communication open with your team will minimize feelings of anger and alienation that may arise if associates believe management is unconcerned with their interests.
President Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his desk in the White House that proclaimed “The buck stops here!” As a leader, it is sometimes necessary to take the heat for a difficult decision because you will ultimately play the role of arbiter in your organization or enterprise. If your decision-making process is sound, it is better to stand firm than to give false hope by appearing to waffle or by passing blame to others. People understand that leaders have a difficult job, and they are more likely to respect a leader who stands strongly by a thoughtful decision—even if it turns out to be a wrong one—than someone who obfuscates and tries to pass the buck to others. It is often far easier to recover from a mistake than to recover from a reputation as a weak, dishonest, or incompetent leader. Following these tips will help you both avoid mistakes and make you a more respected leader.