The Tension of Multiple Right Decisions
Dear leader, you’re not alone in feeling an immense amount of weight in your everyday decisions. In fact, I would hesitate to even address you as “leader” if you didn’t. Hard decision-making is par for the course in what we do, and it often feels like we're being pulled in multiple different valid directions, right?
Probably just like you, I sometimes find myself needing to be direct yet wanting to remain kind, or needing to stay focused but knowing when to stop and be present with people, or most recently, wanting to be punctual but needing to be generous with my time.
I had every intention of being on time to this next event when I got stopped by someone wanting five of the two minutes I had to spare.
Of course, it would have been easy to tell this person that I actually had a meeting in two minutes and that I would come find them afterward. I would normally consider this a completely appropriate and kind response, but this time it felt different. I had no idea what this person wanted to talk to me about, but my gut was telling me that not tending to the heart of this person would be a greater regret than being late to this meeting. At two minutes past punctual, I realize I made the right decision, but I was also four minutes late to my meeting.
So in the end, I withdrew a bit from the reliability bank account with those who were a part of that meeting, but I made a huge deposit into the reliability account with the person who needed me in the moment. And you know what? The next time I’m in a similar situation, I may make a completely different decision. I may decide to delay interacting with someone in favor of being on time to an important event. I’ll still be kind and make sure they walk away feeling like the most important person in the world to me, but hey, “It’ll be about an hour, but I’ll come find you right after.”
In either case, I’m still the same, consistent person. Even though those are completely opposite decisions and behaviors, I’m staying true to the values at my core no matter which way the circumstance gets sliced. If I had acted from a hard and fast behavioral rule like "I’m never late to meetings!” instead of a life value that says, “I’m a reliable leader who takes care of people”, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to choose which flavor of reliability was right in the moment. The truth is, both people deserved my reliability, but only one of them got the better part of it that day. That hurts a little bit. That is a huge tension for me, but when we’re faced with dichotomies like these, our values should always be the deciding factor.
When you have two different sensibilities pulling you two different directions, before trying to solve for what’s “right”, consider that they may both be valid. Sit in the discomfort of that tension and make the decision that’s appropriate for the moment. It’s so tempting with uncomfortable tensions like this to create behavioral rules to make future decisions easier, like “I’m never late to meetings!” or “I don’t stop until the task is done!" And we do this in the name of consistency, but all this really creates is a mindless, decision-making system that ignores the vast complexity of people and changing circumstances. This isn’t just lazy leadership; it’s selfish leadership. Behavioral rules may help you get it right half the time, but what about the other half? You’ll completely bulldoze people without even realizing it, which ironically, will force you to live out the very detriment you were trying to avoid—inconsistency.
Think of consistency in the context of a tree. The root system and tree structure are your values, and the produce of the branches is your behavior. Some seasons bring verdant leaves and sufficient shade, others bring various kinds of fruit, some bring changes in colors, and still others shedding and new life. The manifestations you see on the outside of the tree vary, but the root and base structure are unchanging. You would never say to the tree, “You’re so unpredictable. I never know what to expect from you. You never have what I need.” Instead, you would say, “While you don’t always look the same, I can always expect you to be where you last were and have what I need in every season.” People should be able to say the same about your leadership.
Here’s the takeaway. Trustworthy leaders don’t adapt their values to affirm their behavior; they adapt their behavior to affirm their values.
With that in mind, let me speak just a moment to the leader who thinks of yourself as more “black and white”. I understand the appeal of this mindset because it's straight-forward and leaves no room for ambiguity. I get it because this used to be me. So, let me first say, your commitment to what is right is commendable; never stop pursuing what is right. But here’s the downside of a black and white outlook—it almost always prioritizes principles over people. Principles make great advisors and horrible dictators. Principles too often are used as moral trump cards to excuse the mismanagement of people. You should never compromise your convictions—that’s not what I’m saying. But what I am saying is that there’s almost always a way to honor your convictions and take care of people’s hearts in the process.
EITHER/OR decisions are inexcusable when BOTH/ANDs are possible. As a leader, you should constantly feel the weight of BOTH/AND decision-making. It should be uncomfortable. It should feel impossible. But great leaders don’t limit themselves to EITHER/OR decisions. They expand their options. They challenge their limits. They adapt solutions to best serve everyone and everything in their care.
There are no formulas, automated solutions, or binary answers in leadership. It’s a hard and stretching pursuit that comes to terms with feeling conflicted and challenged on the regular. Should I be cautious or courageous; adamant or flexible; efficient or generous; assertive or gentle?
And the answer is YES.