When Gavin Newsom and Jay Inslee (the Governors of California and Washington state respectively) essentially shut down their states, the timing was excellent. The novel coronavirus had already invaded. Citizens were concerned. We had seen what happened in China and it was time for decisive action. While the decisions to send everyone home from work and shut down stores, entertainment, and religious gatherings seemed dramatic, the leadership shown was effective. As days and weeks followed they have been lauded for their actions. It didn’t stop the virus from afflicting the states’ residents but it apparently slowed the curve and magnitude of incidents.
Years of leading human resources departments has taught me one thing. When you are a leader you have to make decisions and weigh what is best for your organization (or country) and what will make other people happy in the short term. If you are a strong leader you will choose what is best for your organization. Either decision is a bit of a gamble and either decision will have its critics and its supporters.
As a leader – whether you are CEO of a company, a parent, or the President of the United States – you make daily decisions that impact not only yourself but those you lead. Your decisions can have positive impacts or negative outcomes. Hopefully, you are making decisions that you believe will yield the best results.
But here’s the catch…
Decisions that yield the best results often go unnoticed or unappreciated. You may prevent a major disaster, but critics will often attack you for not doing enough or acting rashly. As the CEO of a company, you fire a favored key manager who has made many mistakes that resulted in significant fines and lost revenue. Most of the employees don’t realize this very congenial coworker and boss is a disaster when it comes to doing his job. As a leader, you don’t malign him, but you cannot continue to accept his failings. You take all of the right steps before terminating his employment. When you terminate him, many employees think you did the wrong thing. You know that with no action, the cost would have been substantial and the reputation of the company would eventually have been impacted. You headed off a bigger problem.
Taking positive yet apparently severe prophylactic actions to prevent disastrous results seldom gets you rave reviews. In fact, if you do it too well, no one even knows they were in imminent danger. You may be accused of overreacting, being paranoid, being too cautious, and unnecessarily inconveniencing people. Yet, taking no action or very delayed action will also likely lead to criticism, compounded by a horrific outcome.
There is a sweet spot in leadership of allowing just enough pain, but not so much to cause real harm. In this case, you have delayed enough to let those entrusted to your decision making know that you are stepping in for their best interest. When that’s not possible because the stakes are too high, this is where your previous actions create confidence in your hard decisions.
As the CEO of a company, you say, “We are doing great right now but we need to cut back on spending to invest more in new product development.” People may think you are making a poor decision, but when the new products save the company from falling behind, confidence in your leadership grows.
If you as a leader build this type of trust, you can weather making tough decisions. You don’t cave to the pressure of your supporters or the negative comments of your employees when you know the decision you are making is right.
The best choice will not always be recognized in the moment or even ever, but leadership requires making tough decisions and standing by them.