Let’s face it. Strong leaders aren’t always popular. The reality is that making firm, unpopular decisions is one of the true hallmarks of a leader.
As a strong leader you make the hard calls when it’s easier to remain status quo. You take the responsibility to make decisions on your own instead of by consensus—sometimes in opposition of the consensus. You make decisions faster and with less information than anyone would like, because the clock is ticking on a risk or opportunity. You rely on yourself and the equity you’ve built with your team to carry out the plan. This is leadership.
If you don’t make the tough calls, you might be popular, but your leadership will suffer. And eventually, although you may be liked by many, you won’t be respected by your best people. They’re the ones who will be first to recognize the value of solid decision making, and the first to notice the lack thereof.
I am leading a project right now that impacts four different markets. The benefits of the investment will materialize at different times, but I am making the investment all at once and charging the markets at the same time. Vast resources have been mobilized away from local projects for this initiative, so there is little capacity at this time for local programs people feel strongly about. Further, each market wants to customize certain components, but my direction is to minimize the customizations in the interest of speed.
It is understandable that each market feels this is “unfair.” I have fielded dozens of meetings soliciting everyone’s buy-in (if not understanding), which I don’t always get. Ultimately, though, my responsibility is not to a person or a market. It is to this company, our customers, and our staff. You can’t go halfway or bow to pressures of others (even those you like and respect) when you are investing millions of dollars into the future of your company. When you go all in, in spite of “fairness,” people may not think you are the nicest or fairest person, but they will respect you and hopefully even come to appreciate the tough choices you are forced to make for everyone’s benefit as a whole.
Unfortunately, no leader can escape tough choices that will impact team members in a way they don’t like. It’s part of the “this is why they pay me the big bucks” bucket. So, the next time you are staring down a decision that puts knots in your stomach, perhaps my do’s and don’ts for strong leadership decision-making can help.
• Do believe in yourself and how you came to your conclusion so you can communicate your decision(s) with conviction. Big decisions require diligence. Know the data that backs up your decision. Clarify your vision. Both data and vision are compelling and equally powerful if delivered well.
• Do solicit input and advice from stakeholders, executers of the plan, and experts. This ensures you’ve thought of how best to make the decision, how best to communicate the decision, and shows respect that is due those involved. Remember: this is not the same as consensus decision-making, which requires everyone to compromise on a potentially lesser quality decision and defrays the responsibility of the leader to the entire team. Seek advice, but you make the final call.
• Do hire strong people, and give them as much autonomy as you can. For every decision that someone else could appropriately make in their role, make it clear you support their decision, regardless if you would or wouldn’t have made the same one. This empowers others and builds equity for when you make a decision they aren’t in favor of.
• Do deliver quality work, otherwise you will completely lose credibility and your team’s trust in the future.
• Do always make ethical decisions. Otherwise, you deserve to be disliked—and fired.
• Do be consistent. If your decisions are usually right and you get things done, people will start to like you (maybe).
• Don’t be selfish. Your job as a leader is not about you. In fact, it’s about you the least, so stop worrying about if people like you, and do the right thing. It’s a lot like a parent with kids. If you are tough and make unpopular decisions as they grow up—choices that prepare them to be great human beings—kids will for sure not like you many moments along the way, but in the end they will love you for shaping them into incredible people.
• Don’t bring up the same decision for discussion over and over when everyone already thinks the decision is made. It makes others lose confidence in you and creates the impression you can be swayed by others or your own internal conflict.
• Don’t avoid tough decisions or confrontation. It makes you, your business, and your team stronger when everyone knows their leader is willing and able to take a fight when needed, because, well, sometimes it’s needed.
There are brilliant folks out there who have been successful as consensus leaders and cheerleaders. There are colleagues everyone loves and wants to vacation with. And when there are no major challenges within the organization, no new regulatory or industrial constraints or very little serious competition, popularity can work. But if any of those dynamics change, all day long I would prefer someone with the stomach to make the tough calls with decisiveness and speed.