Who Gets to Decide?

Just about every leadership book and every leadership speaker talks about the importance of allowing people to fail. The concept is delegation does not occur unless and until I enable people to make their own decisions, take their own risks, and succeed or fail on their own.

Easy to say, hard to do, on so many levels. Some of the common questions are:

  • How much risk should I allow them to take?
  • What if I am certain they are making the wrong decision, a decision that will cost me money, put the company at risk, put the person at risk? How can I look away and allow the failure to occur?
  • How many failures are okay?

Lately, I have come to realize this question, who gets to decide, also applies to our personal lives. The following stories brought this realization home to me.

A friend’s teenage son is more focused on sports than on his homework, a familiar story. Mom says, “we have to make him do his homework.” Thus ensues a fight between mom and son. Dad says, “let him suffer the consequences if he chooses not to do his homework.” 

Who gets to decide? Who is “right”?

The 89-year-old father of a friend has cancer. His actions indicate he is confused about what he wants. He says he is willing to get treatment but misses his treatment appointments. He lives alone and refuses a live-in caregiver or even a visiting caregiver. Before the cancer diagnosis, he was cognitively in fine shape. Son says, “we have to make him go for his treatments.” Daughter says, “if he wants to be alone, doesn’t attend his appointments, doesn’t return the doctor’s phone calls, it’s his decision to make, not ours.”

Who gets to decide? Who is “right”?

Back to the three questions from the leadership story:

  • How much risk should I allow them to take?
  • What if I am certain they are making the wrong decision, a decision that will cost me money? How can I simply look away and allow the failure to occur?
  • How many failures are okay?

Which choice is the more courageous one? Who gets to decide?

What Is Empathy, Really?

The dictionary defines empathy quite simply:

It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

For most of us, this simple sentence describes one of life’s most significant challenges. We come at everything from our point of view, and our style, combined with our backgrounds and experiences, drives how we see things.

A few years ago, I attended a retreat for leadership coaches. The retreat began with a speaker from a local theatre group. His talk was about empathy. He gave us a peek into the life of an actor and drew a parallel between acting and leadership. From his perspective, a successful actor can empathize with their character and really get inside and understand their story.

Actors follow these three guides to becoming their character:

  • What if I were in their situation? What wants and fears drive who they are?
  • “What if” allows us to empathize even when we cannot sympathize.
  • And then, to truly empathize, we must listen with charity.

With genuine empathy, our speaker said, while we may not sympathize with a murderer, we can empathize and then become the character. We begin to understand the character by asking ourselves, what wants, fears and experiences drove them to take another person’s life?

Then, he challenged us, isn’t this the same with leadership? Or, for that matter, with all our interactions with others? If we can step outside ourselves, if only for a moment, can we see the world as the person sitting across from us sees it?

When Our Assumptions Lead Us Astray

How often are we in situations where what we want and what others want are not aligned? We make assumptions daily, mostly about other people. These assumptions enable us to take shortcuts, and at the same time, they cause disagreement that perhaps wasn’t there to begin with.

  • We assume a person attended or didn’t attend an event because…
  • We assume a person responded to us a certain way because…
  • We assume a person took action or didn’t take action because…

What if, instead of assuming, we paused and asked:

  • What is the reason you made this choice or took this action?
  • When your customer complains about “service,” do you probe to understand what is really going on?
  • As the TSA reminds us when we see something, do we say something?
  • When an employee behaves a certain way, do we ask what is really going on?

Listen, Please

As leaders, we are problem solvers. Problem-solving is a crucial strength required in a leader. And yet, sometimes, the best solution is to simply listen.

When I first began working as an executive coach, I believed that my role was always to motivate my client toward action. While I still believe action is required to achieve results, I have also learned that, and often have to remind myself, that sometimes, it’s best to just listen.

Sometimes all a person wants is the opportunity to think out loud. And for us, as the listener, to do just that. To simply listen, not offer advice, perhaps ask a question or two and then allow them to sit with their own questions, their own reflections, and come to their own answers. 

Sometimes being heard is enough. Perhaps at a later date, it’s time for action.

Reduce Your Choices

How often do we pause during a day and ask ourselves, “what was my intention today? What did I want to accomplish?” 

  • What if, instead, discipline became a habit? 
  • What if, instead, we gave ourselves fewer choices each day?
  • What if, instead, we prescribed our day such that we spent more time on action and less on deciding?

According to Tony Schwartz, author of Why You Need to Make Your Life More Automatic, “the more conscious willpower we have to exert each day, the less energy we have leftover to resist our brain’s primitive and powerful pull to instant gratification.”  

Conversely, the more of our key behaviors we can put under the automatic and more efficient control of habit — by building something he calls “Energy Rituals” — the more likely we are to accomplish the things that truly matter to us.

And the fewer decisions we have to make, the more likely we are to make better decisions. This sobering story, Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue? by John Tierney, drives home both the value and the societal impact of leaders choosing to make fewer choices. 

So how do you get started? Begin by slowing down. Then decide your priorities and make those a daily habit. With the remaining time, reduce your choices. The counterintuitive result is by doing less, we accomplish more. 

Was Fraud The Intent or the Outcome?

Thank you for allowing this shameless self-promotion before today’s story. In October, I was a guest on the Northern Trust Advisors Podcast, and I just learned that this podcast made their top ten for 2021. So exciting! Here’s a link if you want to listen to a 1.5-minute excerpt. 

Psychologists, anthropologists, everyone who studies the human brain tells us we are hardwired to respond to stories.

A while back, I watched two documentaries chronicling stories told by storytellers who were later indicted for fraud, Billy McFarland, founder of Fyre Media and creator of the Fyre Festival, and Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos. 

Perhaps because I watched them back to back, I was struck by the common themes. Both founders passionately believed in their stories and told them well, so well, that investors and buyers flocked to them. 

We will never know whether these storytellers and others like them set out to commit fraud or whether they believed so passionately in their stories that they were blind to the facts. 

Regardless of their intent, their stories were compelling, and investors and customers bought in. 

This past week, a jury convicted Elizabeth Holmes of three counts of fraud. And Billy McFarland was convicted of two counts of fraud in 2018.

For me, these cases raise important questions for us as leaders: 

  1. When does confidence become hubris?
  2. How do we recognize the difference between believing in our vision and blind passion? 
  3. How do we ensure that we monitor and evaluate our endeavors and keep ourselves open to hearing and processing feedback that may be contrary to our beliefs?

Are You Green & Growing?

The further along, we get in our careers, the more we know and the more we are challenged to stay curious.

Every now and then, I meet a leader that knows it all. They have “the way” they do things that worked for them in the past, and as leaders, they are confident it will work today.

They share “the way” with their team, expecting them to accept “the way” and to become successful because of it. They do this with the best intentions, yet the results don’t come. Frustrated, they try again. If only folks would simply execute “the way,” they will be successful, and so will our company.

Alas, they discover, it doesn’t work the way it once did. This leader has two choices, s/he can continue to lead as s/he has always done, or… s/he can become curious.

What I have noticed is businesses, like ourselves, are living beings. And, like a plant, if I am not willing and able to be green and growing, the result is that I and my company become ripe and eventually rotting.

Go Ahead, Drop Some Balls

A friend of mine recently received a significant promotion. While he is excited about his promotion, he is searching for his replacement and, for now, is doing both jobs. When I asked him how it was going, he responded, “just trying to get it all done, without dropping any balls.”

This conversation reminded me of one I had with one of my clients. She was lamenting the challenges one of her executives has with burnout. In this case, the CEO said, “I wish he would learn to drop some balls; his effort to get everything done is what is causing his burnout!”

The’ to-do list’ can seem endless for those who want to dot every I and cross every T (I admit I am one of them). What I heard this wise CEO saying was, “go ahead, drop some balls,” just choose the ones you are going to drop.

What if, instead of starting each day with a list of what we are going to do, we begin by removing the things we aren’t going to do. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • What if you reviewed email once or twice per day and let everyone know this is your plan?
  • What if you coded your email so that critical emails moved to a priority list, and you responded to these first and removed yourself from cc lists?
  • What if for everything that comes your way, you paused and asked yourself, does this email, call, text, inquiry even require a response? And if it does, is this something only I can do? Or can I delegate it?
  • What if you paused before saying “yes”?

Better, Better, Maybe Not?

The notion that we can constantly make ourselves and our companies better, in theory, is a great idea. But when does it become too much?

For me, the best way to answer this question is to notice our strengths and work to enhance them. As an executive life coach, I refer to this as discovering and working in our genius.

Sometimes we become so focused on achieving that we cannot appreciate who we are or what we have already accomplished. When we are constantly reaching, it’s a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. 

What? Wasn’t I just quoting Florence Nightingale a few weeks ago, who said discontent leads to innovation? Yup. It is indeed a delicate balance, isn’t it?

For me, the subtle difference between striving to make the world a better place and pausing to celebrate accomplishment comes with self-awareness. The stoics said it well. We must be careful not to become reactionary or to accept, without question, the status quo. We must know ourselves, know our geniuses, and recognize where and when we can make a difference and where and when we cannot.  

Once we understand and act within our genius consistently, we become more effective, more satisfied, and ultimately better leaders. 

What Is Weakness?

Last week I wrote a blog entitled “What is Vulnerability,” in which I made an effort to describe the difference between showing vulnerability and showing weakness.

A couple of readers wrote in taking issue with my description of showing weakness. 

Here is what they wrote: 

“I’m going to send this to my client who struggles with vulnerability. I would suggest something, though. Your definition of weakness – leaders often don’t know what to do and are uncertain. I tell people they don’t need to know all the answers, and it’s OK to be uncertain. They can name that and ask the group.”

“I want to argue again. The definition of weak is as bad as the prohibition of vulnerability. Weak = uncertain!!!!! Really. Where does that take leaders? They get paid to be uncertain and lead. So everyone has to pretend to be certain. I don’t know what to do, but here’s what we choose to do, is what leaders get paid for. Easy when you “know what to do!”

Receiving both of these comments from fellow coaches who I respect, caused me to pause. The second one came from Rick Eigenbrod, who has been both an inspiration and mentor to me. I responded and asked him to say more which led to a conversation and the following insights.

If, at the most basic level, the definition of a leader is they have followers, then what must a leader do to strengthen, rather than weaken, their bond with their followers?

In the military, where the chain of command is strict, it might seem that it’s the structure that defines who is a follower and who is a leader. Yet we know that followers will disobey, mutiny, etc., when their leader appears weak even in a rigid system.

So, what is weakness?

Here’s where Rick and I landed on this topic:

  • Leaders must take a stand. 
  • While leaders may be uncertain about the outcome, they must be certain about their choice, i.e., give their followers something to follow. “Tell me which hill to take,” as a client of mine used to say. 
  • Weakness is the inability to find a platform upon which to take a stand.
  • Weak is being afraid to take a stand, vulnerable is acknowledging the outcome may be uncertain, our choices may all be risky, and we are moving forward with this one because…

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