Leadership - Think Less

This is going to sound crazy, but…when making leadership decisions, it is often best to minimize the use of your brain. Before you roll your eyes and stop reading, let’s take a quiz. Answer all questions instinctively and truthfully.

1.) A relatively new employee wants to take vacation during a time that is not in the best interest of the business or its customers. However, this individual’s family has already paid for the vacation and it is the only chance that she will have this year for the vacation with her entire family. If you deny her request, she is likely to resign. What do you do?

A) Provided you can cover her work, make an exception and let her go. She is in an important job, and her resigning is worse than being out for a week.

B) Deny the request for vacation, as it is well known that there is a no vacation policy at the time she is requesting it.

C) Tell her to make up an excuse, such as a family wedding, for why she is out so you can justify letting her go.

2.) You issue a challenge to your team to have all open positions filled by the end of the year, as having zero open positions in January is critical to your success. Furthermore, your boss is evaluating you based on your ability to accomplish this goal. In late December, you are conducting a final interview on a candidate that has made it through a very rigorous 9-step process with your team. During your interview, you spot a couple of potential red flags with the candidate. What do you do?

A) Reject this candidate, thereby missing your objective of being fully staffed by the end of the year, upsetting the hiring managers that put the candidate forward, and disappointing your boss.

B) Make a short-term decision for the sake of meeting your immediate business objectives of having a fully staffed team and deal with the issue during a time when there is less business risk for carrying open positions.

C) Ignore the red flags you sensed, as those that interviewed the candidate before you would have caught them if there was something to be seriously concerned about.

3.) You are at an annual awards banquet wherein you award performance for the previous year. It was an exceptionally tough year, but there are lots of awards to hand out; however, none of the senior leaders on your team achieved goal…but one clearly outperformed all other senior leaders. What do you do?

A) Pick the person that performed the best on the team and award that person with a top performer award, as that truly is the top performer on your team.

B) Do not present an award to anyone on your senior leadership team, and risk upsetting and potentially losing the individual that clearly performed the best.

C) Award the person who performed best on your team during the awards banquet, but acknowledge that he/she did not actually achieve goal for the year.

4.) You are in a senior leadership position managing a large team in a large organization laden with bureaucracy, process, and policies, and you are asked to complete a major task that will distract your entire leadership team during the busiest, most critical time of the year. This is your first year in the job, and every single person before you has been able to get this task done during this same timeframe. What do you do?

A) Comply with the request to complete the task during the historical time frame, as that’s clearly the way it has always been done. You do not want your name to be the only one on the list for not getting it done.

B) Submit a formal request for changing the task during future years, register your discontent with the timing, and just get it done this year as requested.

C) Make the decision not to complete the task in the given timeframe, and instead elect to complete it later in the year when the timing makes more sense…and assume all professional risk associated with this decision.

How did you do? Here are my answers – 1) B. 2) A. 3) B. 4) C.

These are hard questions to answer, especially when emotion is involved. As leaders, we confront similar situations every single day. If we overthink them, we will undoubtedly make mistakes.

Let me be clear about something – When I suggest to think less, I’m talking leadership, not business strategy. Basic leadership decisions should not be very academic in nature. Most leadership mistakes occur when the brain (or emotion) is given primary governance, rather than strong leadership principles. Here’s my hypothesis – principled leadership reduces the amount of brain needed to make day-to-day leadership decisions, as your core leadership principles inform and govern most decisions; consequently, your brain is less likely to “talk you into” bad ones.

“But wait! I use my brain all the time and it doesn’t talk me into bad decisions!” Perhaps, but I’d wager you are making mistakes on the most basic of leadership decisions if you are relying on your brain, rather than strong core leadership principles.

Here are my core principles – they govern 90% or more of all leadership decisions I make…and they are especially useful when making the tough ones.

1.) Achieving Goals/Driving Results. Above all else, most jobs are about results. There are all sorts of things that can distract from achieving results, and we must be vigilant about keeping all distractions out of the way. I used this one to make the decision on #1 and #4 (above).

2.) Rewarding Top Performance. I hold rewarding of top performers very dear, and only top performers. I will not compromise on this core value. I used this one to make my decision on #1 and #3 (above).

3.) Never Settle On Talent. Of all of my core leadership principles, this is easily the most critical. Whether it is a hiring decision or a tough firing decision, I will never settle for anything less than excellence when it comes to talent. Ever. Many people lack discipline on this principle…and they do so to their inevitable demise. I used this one to make my decision on #2 (above).

There you have it – my core leadership principles. Without these guiding principles, I would have undoubtedly made different decisions on the four scenarios at the beginning of this post. By the way – they were all real decisions I faced within the last year.

Given that we do not lead in a vacuum, it is critical that your team is aligned on whatever set of core leadership principles make the most sense for you and your business. Take a full day with your team (offsite, if possible) to discuss and establish your own, as you have to be very deliberate about such things to achieve consensus…and, ultimately, success as a leadership team.

Please respond with the core leadership principles that you hold most dear; I’d love to see them.

Lead. Courageously.

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  • Eric Krassow

    Good, practical post Doug. Speaks to the never-ending balance of short and long-term goals in business. To that end, I’m interested in more of your thoughts on the first scenario. If achieving goals/results is above all else, and assuming the goal of this position is short-term (annual), wouldn’t keeping that position filled maximize your potential to achieve the goal, thus trumping all else?

    • Eric:

      I sincerely appreciate the thoughtful question, as you are getting right to the heart of what this post is all about. Without guiding principles, we are seduced into making leadership mistakes. To me, it’s not as much about short-term vs. long-term as it is about making good, sound decisions that will stand the test of time and scale. In scenario #1, it was more about holding true to a philosophical position about what we’re here to do – serve our customers during their time of need. Or, as my friend Brian Kibby often says…be at our best when our best is required.

      As I see it, making an exception for this individual (which seems somewhat reasonable) sets a precedent that we simply cannot afford to live with when you consider the impact of scaling this same exception across the organization. Furthermore, the person was new. Had it been a top performer with a real record of achievement, the decision would have been much more complex for me.

      Thanks for stopping by and contributing. That’s exactly why I do this – we need more of that.


  • Matt Busbridge

    Great post Doug – it was interesting to compare my gut decisions on your three examples to your own and then relate your choices back to the guiding principles. I especially like your 3rd principle; it greatly facilitates the first two. One of my own core principles is authenticity (self, when hiring talent and within my team). I’ve seen how powerful it is first-hand from several mentors/leaders and have found it deeply drives the mission, results/performance and pays dividends (short & long term).


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