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Making Impossible Leadership Decisions

We hope, as leaders, that we are never faced with impossible life and death decisions. However, this is the new normal we live in. Which is worse? The loss of life or livelihood? You decide.

Whether you run a company, own your own business, or are just trying to ensure your family is cared for, you are facing an onslaught of seemingly impossible decisions now on a regular basis. Here are the crucial components of successful decision-making for leaders, whatever their role, in the face of crisis:

Take Responsibility

This might seem obvious, but it is certainly not everyone’s first reaction. A leader takes responsibility for getting as informed as fast as possible. The leader’s job is to ensure the safety and success of as many of their followers as possible – themselves included. Assessing who is to blame for the crisis is wasting precious time and energy needed to get to a solution. Whether the leader is blaming past presidents, or the mailroom clerks, blame is 100% irrelevant to what the next action needs to be. Save it for later, if you are compelled to point fingers. Get through the gauntlet first.

Break the Analysis Paralysis

It is certainly tempting to make immediate, reactionary decisions in crisis, in order to get to the other side faster. It is equally tempting to make no decisions at all, lest we fail. Both are efforts to control the uncontrollable. Leaders who leap too soon are just to flip side of leaders who won’t leap at all. Both are afraid, and trying to avoid greater discomfort than they already are in.

The best way out of this fear is acceptance of the situation. Once we accept what is, we can make a less emotional choice, which fits our reality. It might not feel great (who wants to lay people off, or close their doors?), but at least it is a considered response to the situation.

It is no accident that the final stage of grief is acceptance. Crisis creates trauma, which in turn creates grief. Leaders are not immune to its impact. Knowing this, we can recognize denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance for what they are during the decision process. The best decisions come from the place of acceptance.

Take the Leap

We are wired to want to understand not only what is happening, but why it is happening. We crave endless information, data and research. We want to plot out metrics so we can place sure bets. If this were possible, we would all have won the lottery.

It is inescapable that many decisions must be made amid uncertainty. Assessing the right trajectory with a limited sightline is a common leadership challenge even in easier times – and now it is amplified to almost intolerable levels. This is especially true when the stakes include life and livelihood.

The leader who understands the true nature of decision-making gets as much verified information as possible, and then is willing to follow their intuition the rest of the way. In other words, they trust themselves.

The most successful leaders admit that when data is missing, they have learned to trust their intuition. Our intuition operates below the level of consciousness and comes to its conclusions many times faster than rational, linear thought. It is also shown to be right at a much higher rate. So take the leap.

Make a Longer Play

Crisis has a way of really testing our values. It tests our mission, vision and purpose too. If we are not willing to frame our every decision by these principles then they were never really our principles to begin with. Principles, such as our values are not negotiable – not now – not ever.

Recognizing the long-term organizational consequences of our short-term decisions is a black-belt skill. It requires a level of self-possession only a few have. This becomes clear, especially when we are surrounded by partial information, misinformation and conflicting information. Principles are a more reliable set of standards than “right” or “wrong”.

Standing on our principles in crisis is why the captain goes down with the ship (well, actually the captain is the last living person on board the ship). This is a moral (not a legal) mandate for the captain to ensure the largest number of lives are saved, remaining until everyone else has disembarked. The captain’s primary principle is to care for their passengers and crew. The captain gives up something lesser (an individual life) for something greater (the lives of everyone on board).

Recognize Your Humanity

Most of us are already being asked to make 70+ conscious decisions every day before there is a crisis. This creates decision fatigue throughout the day, making us less and less effective as a 24-hour period progresses. So when crisis hits, what we wear, or eat for dinner, is not mission critical to the lives hanging in the balance. Leaders can, and should, set aside the mundane decisions for the moment, so they can focus on what matters most.

Additionally, stress affects us physiologically, and constricts our brain’s ability to think effectively. When leaders are under duress, it is non-negotiable that they find reasonable means to rest and recharge. This can be as simple as a 10-minute walk, playing with a pet, working a puzzle, meditating or reading something inspirational.   We have traditionally treated these activities as a luxury. However, without them, our decision-making ability is seriously compromised.

In actuality, there are no impossible decisions. There are consequences we are, or are not, willing to accept. When we expand our concept of what might be possible, we become much more creative. Also, when we release our intense need to be perfect, empirically right, or in complete control, the decision becomes easier, less frightening, and the results are almost always better for all of us.

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