image of a coffee cupThere will be many days in your leadership life, when you will be challenged to make decisions that carry painful implications for teams, departments and individuals. Your ability to stare straight at the unpopular and difficult issues and make a decision that is contrary to popular opinion, is core to your evolution as a leader.

No one said this would be easy.

The 10/28/12 episode of 60-Minutes showcased a business owner in Asheboro, N.C. who was forced to outsource a portion of the firm’s manufacturing while laying off some of his local team in order to save the company. In spite of the unpopular nature of the approach, he was resolute in his belief that this decision allowed him to save the company while finding a way to navigate forward into new product offerings. He’s since increased his local staffing.

Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame faced a series of these moments of truth when he resumed his role as CEO of the firm during a period of struggle just a few years ago. There was the decision that went against the guidance of pundits and advisers to fly 10,000 store managers to New Orleans for a meeting to publicly and openly address the firm’s challenges and help rediscover their priorities. According to Schultz, “If we hadn’t had New Orleans, we wouldn’t  have turned things around.”

He also faced significant external pressure to eliminate or reduce health care benefits and to consider reducing product quality to cut costs. “I could cut $300 million out of a lot of things, but do you want to kill the company, and kill the trust in what this company stands for? There is no way I will do it.”

Decisions around strategy, structure and people are the mainstay of every business, yet too many leaders opt for the public choices…and not the right choices.

It’s hard to commit to that new strategy vector when it is different than where the firm has come from in the past. It’s challenging to break apart a stagnant structure in support of executing on a new approach and it’s doubly difficult to recognize that you’ve got the wrong talent mix for tomorrow’s game. Stall out on these issues and you risk your firm’s or team’s success.

Recognize that You Own the Tough and Unpopular Calls:

As fond as I am of lists in these posts, there are no easy words or magical “do this” lists for the issue of facing up to your toughest challenges. It starts with recognizing your responsibility for the issues in front of you and accepting that the right choice often is the one that will be viewed by some group of stakeholders as the least popular choice.

You owe it to your organization and to yourself to evaluate the issue and decision-paths from every possible angle. However, if you find yourself delaying a critical decision while you boil the ocean in search of an answer that feels easier, you are likely exacerbating a problem.

Move quickly to evaluate the issue from multiple frames. Gain outside, unbiased help in vetting options and approaches. And most of all, listen to what your inner-voice is telling you is the right thing to do…not the easy thing.

I’ve cultivated my own approach which involves moving fast to frame, assess and decide, and then sleeping on it for a night or two. It’s amazing how clear things become if you slow down momentarily and let your brain help that inner voice emerge. If I’ve done my diligence, the right choice for the moment always emerges. If I wake up still in a quandary, I know that I’ve got more work to do.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Cutting through the noise and political chatter in your organization is essential to any leader’s success. It helps if your firm has well articulated values that frame choices however, in the absence of these tools, recognize that you own making the right choice…which unfortunately happens to often be the unpopular choice. Make the decision, share your rationale, acknowledge the difficulty factor and seek to gain understanding and help in moving forward. If you’ve cultivated the right team, they’ll recognize that once the decision has been made, it’s their job to pitch in and help bring it to life.  Remember, the unpopular decisions are yours.

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