Making Difficult Decisions: Act As The Office, Not The Person

Making Difficult Decisions: Act As The Office, Not The Person

When faced with a difficult decision I am often reminded of one of the early episodes of The West Wing – hands down my favourite TV Series:

After the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution of a Federal prisoner convicted of killing two drug kingpins, President Jed Bartlet, a committed Catholic, has 48 hours to decide whether to commute the sentence. Following intense deliberation both with his immediate team and alone, Bartlet asks to see his childhood Priest whom he knows well. Father Thomas Cavanaugh arrives shortly before the execution is scheduled to take place and the stress of the still unresolved decision weighs heavily. Shown into the Oval Office, Cavanaugh asks the President whether he prefers that he address him as Jed or as Mr. President. Surprisingly, Bartlet immediately responds, “To be honest, I prefer Mr. President. There are certain decisions I have to make while I am in this room. Do I send troops into harm’s way? Which fatal disease gets the most research money? It’s helpful in those situations not to think of yourself as the man, but as the office…

As a business leader one is called upon regularly to make difficult decisions. Examples abound: the demotion or even termination of a long-term employee, the promotion of younger talent ahead of personnel with more seniority, the termination of a promising R&D program, the closing of a plant or a facility, the divestiture of a longstanding business. The array of difficult decisions is wide and varied, but generally what makes them challenging is the human component that attends the choice – whether directly or indirectly. Frequently, these types of decisions pose a conflict between one’s personal values and sense of how things should be and one’s desire to do what’s right for the business. While there is no doubt that business leaders must balance commercial success with human, social and environmental considerations, leaving the conflict unresolved can result in excessive analysis and hand wringing, or even worse, the wrong decision or no decision at all.

When confronted with these choices it is helpful to recognize that you are making the decision in your capacity as the leader of the business. Others want, pay and even expect, you to make the right choice, not the comfortable one. And here right has many facets, of which only one is the impact on the individuals involved. Longer term considerations, setting of precedents, perception of fairness, assessment of the likelihood of a commercially successful outcome and many others must all be taken into consideration. When the situation calls for a difficult choice, thinking of yourself as the Office and not as the Person will provide much needed perspective and confidence for making the right decision.

Try this Management Tip the next time you’re facing a choice that is personally difficult. Let me know whether it helped and please share it with your network and colleagues.