Leadership is about Hard Decisions

Here are three tips for navigating difficult choices.

I've become increasingly convinced that good organizational leadership is relatively simple but not easy. In other words, unless you work at NASA, good leadership and management isn't rocket science. You can argue around the edges but most gurus preach that leaders should:

  1. Know their customer and mission.
  2. Set a clear direction.
  3. Focus resources on the most important initiatives that will get you there.
  4. Build a great team to implement.
  5. Ensure accountability.
  6. Communicate the story and progress of the organization.
  7. Learn and adapt as you go and never forget about No. 1.

None of that is particularly difficult to understand and certainly anyone with an average IQ can do the job. Warren Buffett famously urged investors with an IQ of 150 to sell 30 points. He wrote:

“To invest successfully does not require a stratospheric IQ, unusual business insights, or inside information. What’s needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding the framework.”

Replace "invest" with "lead" and the statement is equally as true.

For example, the No. 1 problem I see government leaders struggle with is canceling or moving resources from one project and giving them to another. In almost all cases it is clear that the project being cancelled is a low priority for the organization as a whole. The problem is there is almost always someone leading the project who doesn't agree. That person thinks (or talks himself or herself into thinking) that the project is essential. On the surface everyone agrees that the organization should spend its precious resources on its key priorities but when it comes to de-prioritizing any individual project, power, territory, and fiefdoms all come into play.

A good leader has to make the hard call. You can build the justification, show the facts, let the person down easy, but in the end, someone is going to get upset. It's one thing to declare you are going to prioritize but it's another to tell someone face-to-face that the project they've led for five years is going away. Doing that in a sensitive but firm way is what great leaders are made of and it will inevitably have a cost. Here are some ways to improve your chances of success:

  1. Build a solid case: When you are redistributing resources, any choice gets high levels of scrutiny. Make sure you can trace your decision to a prioritization process that used objective criteria and involved multiple inputs.
  2. Keep the end goal and customer in mind: It is one thing to decide to move resources and another to sit in front of the person who is disadvantaged by that decision. You shouldn't underestimate the emotional and human element of that situation. But the decision is about more than one person. The customer or stakeholder who will benefit from the project isn't in the room and his or her voice isn't represented. I find it helpful to hold a picture of that representative customer in my mind to ensure I remember why we made the decision in the first place.
  3. Follow the Process: In behavioral economics they talk about the dynamic between your current self and your future self. Your current self might be assured of a decision but your future self can be confronted with doubts that seem compelling in the moment. Process is a defense against this. Construct an objective process in which multiple parties commit to the outcome. That will bind your future self to the decisions that result from the process and minimize the chances that you'll back down at the last minute.