Great leaders make hard choices

Think of a hard choice you are facing. How does it make you feel?

Oxford University graduate and philosopher Ruth Chang says hard choices are usually regarded as occasions for agonising, hand wringing and gnashing of teeth.

She goes on to say that this is because we misunderstand the role that hard choices play in our lives. “Understanding hard choices uncovers a hidden power each of us possesses,” she says. “It offers us the gift to become distinctive, to be able to say: ‘Here’s where I stand. This is who I am’.”

So what happens if we choose not to make hard choices?

We become drifters, not leaders.

It would be pretty okay if all we wanted was to drift along on life’s sands, watching the tides come and go. There’s even some grace in this if you find a way to keep body and mind together along the way.

But if you have chosen to be a leader or accepted a position of leadership, whether of a country, company, club or group, and in this position you avoid making hard choices or putting yourself on the line, then you leave the people you are supposed to be leading, feeling adrift and unmanaged.

When this happens then they can become lazy, disgruntled and ineffectual or they can seize the power of choice for themselves. They can gather around them others who will support them in leading the country or organisation in a particular direction, good or bad. As a group they start making decisions for the leader, which, more often than not, suit themselves.

When this happens and when people in these ranks are of dubious moral and ethical character, or with dubious management ability, or both, it spells disaster for the country or organisation.

The actual leader, because they have shown no moral strength in taking a stand on decisions or standing behind the decisions they have made, either becomes dependent on the decisions made from below. Or they use the decisions made from below to recuse themselves from consequence; they say that it was not their decision; that they came to know of it afterwards. FIFA President Sepp Blatter is a perfect case in point. Lance Armstrong is another.

Which brings us to the well-worn saying that the fish rots from the head, which is true, but it is equally true to say that if the leader does not take responsibility and maintain the moral compass; if the leader avoids making hard decisions, then the rot starts lower down. From here, it is simply a matter of time before the whole fish rots.

 The following quotes from two multi-star American generals summarise hard decision-making and leadership:

A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. —Douglas MacArthur, American five-star general.

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. —Colin Luther Powell, American statesman and a four-star general.

Does this mean that as leaders they did not make hard decisions that turned out to be disastrous? Of course not, it is impossible to have a 100% success rate in the hard decision game. But if you are the type of person who is capable of making hard decisions, and if 70% of these turn out to be worthy decisions, you are way ahead.

Our own Nelson Mandela was the calibre of man capable of making hard decisions at many levels. As President he went against group consensus post 1994 on the hard decision as to whether or not to get rid of the Springbok rugby emblem. He chose to retain it in the interests of national unity. Was this the right decision? Many might say it was, as many might disagree, but he took a stand and settled this potential crisis. Being a visible decision-maker in a crisis is the hallmark of a good leader.

Crises come in many forms, as we all know.

Right now, for example, South Africa is facing a honeybee crisis. An outbreak of foulbrood disease has killed over 40% of the African honeybee population in the Western Cape this year. It has massive implications for our R20-billion agriculture industry and GDP.

Who should be addressing this national catastrophe? The heads of finance, trade and industry and agriculture should be right there, taking the hard decisions with the fruit farmers and beekeepers.

Actually they should have done this a while back, says Mike Allsopp of the Agricultural Research Council who has been loudly warning about the coming of this catastrophe for two decades.

“Bees are more important than any other domesticated animal because they are indispensable when it comes to our food security,” he says.

Why have no decisions been taken to avert the catastrophe? Because the African bee is a hardy creature that has withstood so much in the past, so what is different about this year? The difference is that this year it is a step too far: this time we are paying the price for the lack of timeous, hard decision-making.

Which brings me back to my original point that hard choices provide us with the precious opportunity to find out who we are and what we stand for.

Are we the kind of people who refuse to see the writing on the wall until the African honeybee is wiped out? Are we the kind of nation that finds it acceptable to go against our own courts’ ruling regarding Omar al-Bashir?

In addressing the answers to these questions we reveal our values, and we reveal our leaders’ values. We reveal who we are.

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 362, August, 2015. It is reproduced with their permission.


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