Leaders, If You’re in a Tough Spot, Make This Better Choice


As we talked about in a recent post, leadership is the art and science of influencing others. And it’s tougher than ever. In an age of unprecedented complexity, it can be challenging to get the best out of people under normal circumstances. Throw adversity into the mix and, suddenly, even mustering the bare minimum of performance while managing your competing priorities becomes an uphill battle. But that’s the job of leadership. People trust you to lead them with competence and character even in the midst of crisis and hardship.  They’re depending on you to show up. Even when it’s really, really hard. That’s why it’s important to remember that no matter what tumult is thrown into your path by forces outside your control, there is always one thing you can absolutely control: your response to the situation. You always have a choice.

Stop and think about how you’re choosing to engage with the problem.

Acknowledging you have a choice is step one in dealing with tough situations (you can read more about that in a separate post here). Making the right, most helpful choice is step two. To assist you with step two, we kicked off a three-part series that addresses common counter-productive mindsets that can easily descend upon leaders in the midst of challenging situations. We’re exploring simple, alternative approaches that you can consciously choose instead of torpor and self-doubt. Hopefully, this series will empower you to stop and think about how you’re choosing to engage with the problem no matter how big it seems. In the first post in the series, we encouraged leaders to look outward for help, instead of retreating inward into isolation. This week, we’ll talk about this better choice leaders can make in tough situations:

Instead of choosing avoidance, proactively lean in. Instead of trying to mentally minimize the scope of the challenge, acknowledge it.

Because there are so many different things demanding a leader’s attention in any given day, it’s easy to continuously push aside the hardest stuff to quickly cross the less demanding tasks off your list. As long as you’re getting the things done, it’s easy to justify putting off dealing with the most difficult issues. After all, these other little things need to be accomplished too, you tell yourself. But you know, deep down, that’s not really an excuse. Yes, the day-to-day items need to be addressed but so does the 500-pound gorilla in the room. You can’t do either, or. You’ve got to find a way to deal with both. And that problem, the one you’ve been avoiding, isn’t going to go away. In fact, the more you ignore it, the larger it grows. The 500-pound gorilla will soon grow to a gargantuan 2,000 pounds if you leave it unsupervised, free to gobble up all the complexity and dysfunction it can find while you’re not looking.

The more you ignore it, the larger it grows.

Many leaders understand this intellectually but fail to express that understanding with their actions in the real world. That failure is understandable, but not defensible. Sure, it’s much easier to choose avoidance right now – but it’s going to be so much harder to solve the problem you’re creating in the future. Be kind to future you! Think of how horrible it will be when they’re faced with dealing with the enormous problem you’re planning to leave at their doorstep. Deal with it head-on now. Then, future you can productively get on with the already challenging enough business of leading people in the 21st century.

As you work on your ability to proactively choose to engage with problems today instead of tomorrow, here are four things to consider:

1. Recognize when avoidance is more than just run-of-the-mill procrastination. Often, avoiding a problem is not only a way to delay the discomfort of dealing with it; it’s also a coping mechanism that allows us to indulge the self-deception that the problem isn’t that bad. If we starve it of attention, maybe it will just wither away to nothing, right? Nope. When you use avoidance as a way to mentally minimize the scope of the crisis or issue, you are not doing yourself any favors. False beliefs don’t change the truth of the circumstances. For example, if a VIP client is on the cusp of taking their business elsewhere, your (temporarily) blissful denial won’t make them stay. But your quickly naming the issue and trying your darndest to woo them back just might do the trick. Try to notice when you find yourself minimizing an issue instead of facing the brutal facts. Even if you’re not ready to flush out an action plan and dive right in today, the first, most important step is honestly acknowledging the problem. By naming the problem and admitting its scope, you put yourself in the best position to responsibly deal with it.

2. Leadership success is dependent on courage. Courageous leaders do not avoid or circumvent tough conundrums or situations. You can’t be a wishy-washy leader and deliver sustainably strong results (you can read more about this in a separate post here). You’ve got to be brave. Deciding to lean into problems rather than tiptoeing around them is a simple, bold choice you can make again and again. It’s a measurable and repeatable step you can take towards actually being courageous in more moments. If you’ve been trying to find a way to enhance your courage in your leadership, this is a good place to start.

Choose to engage courageously with the worst, first.

Work this choice into your behavior: Do the harder stuff on your list first. Every day. With practice, it will become a habit. That way you can truthfully say, down-the-line, I never back down from a challenge. It’s just who I am. I always stare the problem right in the face no matter how daunting. By choosing to engage courageously with the worst first, before the minutiae creeps in to your day, you prevent bad problems from getting worse and you flex and strengthen your problem-solving muscle while skillfully learning to adapt in real time.

3. No, you shouldn’t deny the scope of the problem. But, on the flipside, remember that it’s usually not as bad as it seems. Choosing to engage with a problem, rather than avoiding it, can actually be the best way to alleviate your work-related stress. How? Once you begin to lean in to the big problem, the one that has been haunting your thoughts and taking on mythical proportions of size and scariness, most times you’ll find it isn’t as bad as you pictured it. And, you’ll feel energized and empowered by your ability to face it. Once you’re “in” it, with your sleeves rolled up, wearing your problem-solver’s hat, you won’t have time to be distracted by harrowing thoughts of the looming issue, because you’ll be immersed in the invigoration of solving it.

Practice making this choice: The next time you find yourself spinning with doomsday thoughts about an impending crisis, take a tip from Nike and just do it.  Get started. Whatever that means. Open the file. Make the phone call. Schedule the meeting. Write the memo. Cancel the order. Choose one small action that gets you closer to a resolution. Just getting started transports you from the uncertainty of what if to the tangible and knowable; facing things forces you to be present in the here-and-now.  And it is almost never as bad as you thought it would be once you dive in.

As the leader, people are watching what you do.

4. An important part of your job is modeling this behavior. Making the choice to face problems right away is not just about you and your ability to deliver high performance. It’s about your team. They look to you to set the tone and behavior standards for the overall effort. It all starts with you. At the top. And then trickles down. When you visibly choose to tackle the thorniest conundrums first, when you choose to have the uncomfortable conversation, when you choose to own up to a mistake and fix it – no matter how painful it might be in the moment, those brave choices radiate outward and positively affect the behavior of everyone on the team. As the leader, people are watching what you do, how you do it, what you say. They notice when you avoid things. And they notice when you tackle things head-on. The more you make the choice to engage with tough problems, the more they will make the same choices. Over time, making braver choices will become woven into the fabric of your team’s behavior profile. By modeling this behavior, you make proactivity part of the culture — which makes everyone’s jobs easier because problems are being addressed and handled sooner and better.

The next time a crisis is festering and you can see it from a mile away, don’t choose the path of least resistance. And don’t procrastinate or deny the issue exists. Choose to do something different and wade right into the muck of the problem. Right away. You’ll be setting an example of courageous leadership, it probably won’t be as bad it seems, and you’ll be lifting the whole team up as they rise to your example.

Was there a time where proactively acknowledging or facing a problem has made all the difference to a challenge you were facing? Share in the comments or tweet us at @DougConant. If you found this useful, explore the first post in our “better choices” series and check back next week for the final post in the series.