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Making Difficult Decisions – Some Principles for Our Leaders to Consider


24Feb 2011

Our political leaders have some very difficult issues to manage:

  • Not enough tax revenue to pay for commitments made;
  • The need to cut expenditures, with the accompanying result of displeasing (and even angering) constituents in the areas reduced;
  • Seemingly unrealistic expectations from the general public – wanting “less government” and reduced taxes, but still wanting the same level of services provided;
  • Rules and regulations which have accumulated over the years that, on the one hand, provide some protection for consumers but, on the other hand, drive up the costs of production for goods and services;
  • Probable inefficiencies and waste in areas of government that could be cut, but which are also related to individuals’ jobs and income, in a time where unemployment and lack of discretionary income are already problematic.

As a result of these interwoven factors, leaders have the difficult task of attempting to make difficult decisions that will upset someone, no matter which decision they make.

So what are they to do? Not make any decisions, so as to avoid upsetting some group of their constituents? Try to reach comprises across groups with competing views and needs? Or just boldly move forward in doing what they think is best, regardless of the backlash the decisions they make will create?

Some principles in dealing with “no win” situations may be helpful to our leaders. These issues are not unique to government leaders. Individuals, families, business and organizational leaders frequently face similar situations. In their lives and context, I often hear individuals and family members frame this dilemma in terms of “having no choice”. That is, they have a situation where there really is no good choice – either direction they choose will have some probable negative consequence they don’t want to have happen.

An example of a “we have no choice” situation (as they perceive it) in families is where they have a family member that has self-destructive behaviors (e.g. abusing drugs or alcohol, anger issues, financial irresponsibility) that they continue to support relationally and financially because if they don’t, the person’s life will fall apart and the impact on children in the family will be severely negative (e.g. be taken out of the home). The reality is: the family does have a choice. They just don’t like the choices and results presented to them by the reality of the situation.

In business, the choice could look like having to choose between laying off faithful, valuable long-term employees or potentially having the whole business enterprise fail financially because there is not sufficient revenue to cover expenses with all of the current employees. No business leader relishes having to make that decision.

In reality, there are some guiding principles to help us understand difficult, seemingly “no win”, decisions:

  • The problem being experienced rarely is a surprise; most people could see the situation developing for quite a while. In this context, the problem isn’t necessarily a “crisis” in that it isn’t short-term. The situation may seem critical because the issues are important and the ramifications are serious, but the problem didn’t develop overnight and it won’t be solved quickly either.
  • Often the severity of the current problem is intensified because individuals did not act sooner to address the issues. As a result of indecisiveness, passivity, or a lack of willingness to face the consequences of proactively addressing the issues, leaders make the problem worse than it had to be, if the problem would have been addressed sooner.
  • The problem is not going to just go away on its own. The dilemmas faced are reality-based and will need to be addressed eventually. And sometimes the “solution” is radical change – revolution, bankruptcy, or death of the entity as it now exists.
  • Regardless of the option chosen, there will be pain. It is like having cancer. You can either choose not to do anything and let the cancer run its course, killing the person. Or you can undergo treatments that have the potential to kill the cancer, but also have negative side effects as well.
  • The best way to frame the choices that need to be made is: “Which option am I most willing to live with?” The choice is no longer, “what do you want?” because the choices are typically not ones we would voluntarily choose (e.g. paying significantly more taxes; having virtually no retirement income; not having good roads or adequate police protection). Rather, the choice must be framed as: “Given that you don’t like any of the options you are facing, which option are you most willing to live with?” Or conversely, “Which pathway is absolutely not an option in your mind?”
  • Even though most decisions are not totally “black” or “white”, and there may be room for some compromise in the middle, ultimately a tough decision must be made that will have some undesirable consequences. These difficult decisions cannot be resolved by a Pollyannaish “let’s just compromise” approach. We are past that point. The reality is – there aren’t enough tangible financial resources to meet the prior commitments made and reductions have to occur somewhere.
  • Waiting for popular consensus to develop will lead to paralysis and possible “worst case” scenarios. Like it or not, this is not the time to look to the general populace to come up with the solutions or to lead us through the series of difficult decisions which need to be made. Large groups of individuals either become passive, react in fear and panic, or make inconsistent choices over time – all of which lead to poor decisions.
  • We need courageous leaders who are willing to face the harsh realities facing us, and make the difficult decisions which minimize the future damage. Now is the time for leaders to lead to the best of their abilities, making as wise decisions as possible, “staying the course” of the direction set, regardless of the personal political backlash which may follow.
  • People need to accept the difficulties of the situation, “pitch in” together, and make the best effort to overcome the challenges faced. Now is not the time for complaining or obstructive actions. We, as followers of our elected officials, need to accept the fact that there will be negative consequences in our lives but also work together to help minimize the negatives and seek positive solutions within the paths we find ourselves.

There is hope. Yes, we have made mistakes and will have to deal with the consequences, but now is not the time to give up. With courageous leaders and the will to follow, we can overcome the challenges facing us.

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