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Leadership arises when easy answers are hard to come by

john-engles_column-sigLeadership failures can often be traced to a cardinal bad habit: oversimplifying beliefs, responses and decisions.

This happens when leaders make decisions too quickly and expediently so they can move on to the next issue on the agenda. Or when they become impatient or lazy and habitually prefer sound bites to deep dives. That’s unfortunate.

Why? Because the issues and problems associated with leading cultural change, managing relationships and taking on risk are rarely easy to figure out.

My experience tells me that oversimplifying complex issues usually disregards the context and misses the root of the problem. Without context and depth, it’s more difficult to understand a situation, size up the options and make sound decisions. This gets particularly tricky when the available choices seem less than ideal, whether in business or family settings.

I often recommend to my clients that they adopt an “it depends” mindset as an alternative to making simplistic, yes-or-no decisions.

‘It depends’

The practice of “it depends” provides an important exercise for both personal life and business situations.

Let’s consider two individuals I’ll call Kendrick and Samara. Kendrick currently faces a personal health challenge, while Samara is struggling with an important career decision.

Kendrick has high cholesterol. At 54, he eats well, exercises regularly and has only a mild family history of heart disease. Both of Kendrick’s parents lived into their mid-80s, and neither died from heart-related causes.

A physician Kendrick trusts suggested that he take a statin drug to reduce his cholesterol. But he considers the potential side effects of the drug—muscle soreness, digestive problems and cognitive impairment—not worth the risk.

Although Kendrick’s lifestyle reduces his risk of heart disease, a statin would lower his risk even further.

What should Kendrick do?

He could refuse the statin and live with the heart disease risk. He could take the protective statin and live with the unsavory side effects. Or he could choose an in-between option such as trying various statins to find one that delivers the best cholesterol-reducing benefits while minimizing side effects.

Samara, 44, is in a similar position with a current workplace dilemma. She joined a professional firm a few years ago, became a partner and earns a higher income than most of her peers in other firms. The income has become more important of late, since she and her spouse have taken on the debt of a vacation home in Maine.

The problem is that she feels she can no longer tolerate one of the senior partners, whom she sees as underhanded, self-serving and manipulative. Since the two work in the same practice area, she has found no justifiable way to ignore her problem partner. Their impasse has reached the point of an icy silence that has not escaped the awareness of other partners or staff. To make matters worse, the partner she detests is widely respected outside the firm and generates substantial firm revenue.

What should Samara do?

She could stay in the firm, growing her earning potential even more while remaining in a tense relationship with a partner she finds unbearable. She could leave the firm and sacrifice income to find a less stressful work situation. Or she could explore an in-between step such as involving a third party to resolve the tension between her and her partner—or at least to find a path to peaceful coexistence.

Less-than-ideal options

In each of the above scenarios, there are no ideal solutions.

For Kendrick, any choice he makes produces advantages and disadvantages. Taking a statin or not taking it both involve risk.

For Samara, all options involve some combination of relief and discomfort, convenience and inconvenience. Her troublesome partner is unlikely to leave the firm, and she can’t bear the current relationship.

Many of us find ourselves in the same predicament as Kendrick and Samara: sometimes there are no ideal solutions. Their situations—and ours—are more common than unusual. The temptation is to hold out for a perfect solution.

For Kendrick, the perfect solution would be a long and disease-free life without a statin. For Samara, all would be optimal if her troublesome partner left the firm or retired.

Unfortunately, such Utopian scenarios are virtually unattainable in life and only serve to lock us into a fantasy mindset that avoids progress.

In the face of a difficult problem or big decision, work must be done to find a realistic solution.

Choosing ‘imperfect’ solutions

One of the most important and most agonizing skills to exercise in these situations is the willingness to choose from among several less-than-ideal options.

True leaders and strong individuals who accept the reality of choosing from limited options prove their mettle when there are no easy answers. They learn the art of strategic compromise: knowing when to give up something to get something. They practice discernment, sifting the alternatives to reach their best judgment. Finally, they take a leap of faith that they have done the best they can in choosing a course of action.

It’s uncomfortable to make a choice when there is no simple solution, explanation or answer.

But time spent in careful discernment brings wisdom and the courage to make tough choices, even when they are “imperfect.”

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.

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