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How to survive making the hard decisions

Every leader everywhere is making hard decisions in the face of uncertainty. No one wants to deliver bad news that puts people in an even harder situation. Yet, this is what is happening. It’s a tough burden to carry. Let’s take stock of what can help.

Outward Bound Australia, where I spent ten years of my life, announced they are going into hibernation due to Covid19. After the fires wiped out a lot of their outdoor operating areas in National Parks, the cancellation of programs through the winter was a death knell. They’ve let go of all but five of their 100 staff, until some point in the future, maybe, they might be able to re-launch.

After 60 years of operation, thousands of people have benefited from their extraordinary outdoor leadership programs. My time there was transformative: lifelong friends and fabulous adventures.

None of that matters when we are faced with hard decisions. All the leaders I am working with right now are facing similar hard calls. Do we let people go? What expenses do we cut? When do we close the doors, and will this be forever?

I interviewed Toni Pergolin, CEO of Bancroft, about leading huge turn-arounds. Over the space of  ten years, she helped save the large healthcare provider from the brink of bankruptcy and then doubled its business. Many of the lessons learned apply right now, to many organisations.

I asked her how she went about making the hard decisions. She said, 

“At the heart of it was the thought, ‘we’re too important to fail’. There are vulnerable people who depend on our services who will be in a terrible plight if we don’t make this work. So I put the long-term survival of the organisation first and made decisions from there.”

That was the other important thing she said: make a decision, and be prepared to change it later if you need to. In times of crisis, movement was more important than waiting.

All that makes sense from a leadership point of view. It doesn’t make it any easier emotionally to live with the tough calls.

Stark truths need straight talk. Speak it clearly, and speak it kindly.

I have not regretted any of the tough decisions I’ve made. What I have regretted is HOW I made them and how I delivered them. Some mistakes included: 

  • Avoiding tough conversations until they raised it, allowing the uncertainty to fester
  • Making a unilateral decision without involving others, making them feel powerless
  • Announcing the decision via a text message, a cowardly avoidance tactic that made them feel completely disrespected. For this one I still feel shame.

The hardest part for leaders is the grief and the guilt. The weight of responsibility lies heavy. Feeling the pain of others is empathy. This can lead to empathy exhaustion. Compassion is better. Compassion is acknowledging the pain and doing what we can to ease others through it. We can’t make things ok for people when they are on the receiving end of a bad piece of news. That will be up to them. What we CAN do is be kind in our delivery and as supportive as possible in helping find a way forward. If we make the decision for the bigger picture that helps. If we deliver it through our core values, then we can smooth the way to healing for ourselves. 

Don’t forget to look after YOU. Reach out to peers and share. It doesn’t change the situation, but it does help us to face another day.

What are you doing to help make hard decisions easier?

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Related Articles:

How to make sense of normalised chaos

Boundless Leadership: Never lead alone

Stop your strategic planning disasters

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