Over the past 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with more than 100 senior leaders in higher education. For the most part, it has been a wonderful learning experience, because I’ve been able to watch them operate in situations when they were under a lot of stress and faced tough challenges. It’s during difficult times that a leader’s real character is revealed and you see the measure of the person.
In fact, I recently interviewed a dozen presidents whom I have known for making especially tough and courageous decisions. I wanted to understand more deeply what enabled them to make these difficult decisions and take the actions their decisions required them to take. You need both the decision and the actions that follow to make a judgment about a courageous decision. Following through is often the hardest part of such a decision and the point at which many leaders falter. True leaders need to find a way to move forward and not become frozen by the difficult choices, severe doubt or analysis paralysis.
How do I define a courageous decision? How is it different from other moral or other types of tough decisions?
Obviously, courageous decisions often have an important moral element to them, but morality is not at the core of a courageous decision. Moral decisions often have baseline standards—religious, legal or the like—that help guide the leader in doing the “right thing.” Leaders can always fall back on faith or precedent or the law in making those decisions.
Courageous decisions are more difficult, because usually there is no clear path forward, and the leader has to make the decision with incomplete information, lots of ambiguity and complexity, and no guarantee of success. Courageous decisions also often have high risk attached to them, and the wrong decision could make matters worse—even destroy personal and institutional reputations. Frequently, such decisions run counter to powerful and long-standing cultural norms, and as one president shared with me, “When you touch norms, you touch fire.” These decisions are on a completely different scale for most leaders, testing their mettle in powerful and unknown ways.
So what did the leaders I interviewed tell me about making courageous decisions? Many of the interviewees reported that these decisions were revelatory because they exposed lived values and beliefs and their personal nonnegotiables. They also revealed to the leaders how much courage, integrity, resilience and toughness they actually possessed.
The following is some practical advice to consider from those leaders who actually made courageous decisions. I hope you find it helpful in your own leadership voyage.
No. 1: Don’t walk alone. This was the pervasive theme in the interviews with courageous leaders. For most of them, it also reflected their biggest regret. Many were reluctant to ask for help, fearing that it might make them look incompetent or “not in charge.” They now realize it was not a smart strategy.
The courageous journey should not be an unsupported one. The toughest decisions are almost always solitary ones in the end, and many leaders described what it was like to be in that isolated, lonely place. But you should never walk alone when you can use thought partners, confidants, mentors and other leaders to test your thinking and provide emotional support along the way.
Leaders desperately need trusted yet critical voices who will challenge their perspective and ideas. I have seen some leaders fall into the disastrous trap of self-righteousness, where they believe themselves to be the only ones who see the “right thing” to do and become infatuated with their “special” purpose, mission or vision.
Therefore, leaders must both build their personal resilience and test their thinking against other perspectives. Two strategies for doing this are: 1) seeking out diverse thought partners and 2) finding at least two confidants.
Diverse thought partners are people who give you honest and true feedback on your current thinking about the decision you have to make. Having thought partners who share many of the same values but not the same perspectives as you do is extremely useful. You want to avoid the dilemma of “comfortable cloning,” whereby you seek out others for advice who think just like you. That can happen quite easily and is part of a decision trap called confirming evidence. Avoid it at all costs.
Confidants are those rare individuals whom you deeply respect and admire and with whom you can be vulnerable. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect with them or put on a game face. You can be yourself with them. You know they will be honest with you and care about you as a person.
In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe the importance of confidants to leaders. Confidants are invaluable to leaders who face courageous decisions, because when leaders feel desperate, fearful and anxious, they do not have to hide their feelings but can express them openly with their confidants. It is a gift to have people like this in your life, so try to identify at least two of them.
No. 2: Rely on your values. Understanding what your lived values are—not the platitudes and blather, but what is true for you personally—is essential. You should define your personal lived values and your institution’s lived values, because they both will create the core foundation for making tough decisions and act as beacon of lights when the road forward is unclear or rocky.
Try to identify a small handful of specific personal values, not a laundry list of trite sayings like “excellence” or “honesty.” It is depth that you seek with your values, not shallow sayings that are meaningless—and not statements of what you think you should value.
Sitting down with a confidant and discussing what truly matters to you is a helpful exercise. Encourage your confidant to push back at your thinking and to ask for real examples that show how you live your stated values. You want to uncover and reveal what is true, and that takes emotional courage and vulnerability.
When you must make a tough decision, align it with your personal values. Misalignment will cause you pain, anxiety and even despair, because then you will be lost inside a decision-making process that doesn’t connect with who you actually are as a person.
Living your institutional values can be also an asset if those values are actually:
- Lived: you can see them in action, experience them and measure them;
- Enduring: they last over time; you rarely change your institutional values; and
- Distinctive to your campus or institution: they clearly differentiate you from others.
Core values are not just platitudes that get plopped onto the campus website while lacking any real meaning or resonance. These are the institution’s nonnegotiables, and if institution were to lose these lived values, it would cease to be who it distinctly is. Identify values that are true to the bone—a handful is all you need. Make them as meaningful as possible, because they come in handy when you have to make a courageous decision.
No. 3: Take care of yourself. You can often pay a deep emotional and physical price when you make a courageous decision. Many leaders with whom I spoke expressed real regret about not taking better care of themselves during the difficult decision process. They reported they ate way too much and gained weight. Others stopped exercising, drank too much or put in long hours thinking, analyzing, rethinking and falling prey to analysis paralysis.
Taking real care of yourself is an important and strategic thing to do. It can seem counterintuitive for leaders to take a break or a short vacation during a stressful time, but this is a wise practice to consider, especially during such a time. It is also helpful to stay deeply connected with family and friends who care about you and can serve as a support system. They are almost always eager to fulfill this role, but you have to be proactive in asking for the support and care you need. That in itself is a quietly courageous act and almost always reaps many benefits.
Many of the presidents I interviewed suggested taking long walks in nature with a close friend or finding a physical touchstone of some kind—be it the woods, a church or a chapel, a synagogue or mosque, a backyard garden or a beach. Winston Churchill was known for his long walks in the woods as he led England and Europe through the war. His solitary walks enabled him to get above the fray of everyday problems and pervasive challenges. He was also known for taking short naps almost every day.
The stress of making courageous decisions is real and can take a real toll. Yet often self-care is the first thing to go when things get tough. It takes conscious effort and real discipline on a leader’s part to maintain care for their emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. However, when facing courageous decisions, self-care is one of the most important investments you can make.
No. 4: Look to your heritage. Many of the courageous leaders referred to their family upbringing and the values their parents taught them through their words and, more important, their actions. When they witnessed their parents being courageous, this experience embedded a deep set of values that continued to influence their lives. On the surface, this might seem a matter of common sense. But it was surprising how profoundly these lived values inherited from parents created a touchstone for the leaders’ entire lives and how deeply useful they became when those leaders had to make their own courageous decisions. Almost everyone with whom I spoke had a personal story about the positive influences their upbringing had on their own leadership.
Interestingly, not all those stories involved an immediate family member; many were of uncles and aunts or other members of the extended family who had become positive role models. And for many leaders, a key role model was a teacher or faculty member who gave them time and attention, provided support, and even pushed them hard to be the best person they could be, often seeing in them qualities and talents the future leaders had not seen in themselves.
Of course, some leaders have had troubled family lives and confronted real familial problems, such as alcoholism, abuse or bullying. Many reported that they learned from these family experiences how not to lead, because of the negative role models they witnessed. They were dedicated to never treat others the way they were treated, and they went on to pursue a life of grace and kindness in service of others.
No. 5: Build in reflection time. Things move quickly, and we are all living in an “enduring white water.” Leaders need to carve out time to think and reflect. Build this into your schedule and keep it sacred. It takes real discipline to step away to take note of what is actually happening. When there is a great deal of complexity and ambiguity, it will feel like there is never enough time. Nevertheless, strive to capture your ideas, your feelings and your intuitions.
Several leaders reported that they trusted their intuition—and that capturing it was a key part of their strategic thinking process, as it proved to be an invaluable asset when they had to make the tough decisions. Note your intuitive insights in a journal and review it periodically with a confidant or with a close and honest friend. Journaling can create a powerful learning process for any leader who has the discipline to do it on a consistent basis.
Many courageous leaders also talked about working with a therapist. Leaders should explore their need to lead, their aspirations and their appetites, their motives and fears, and any issues around power, control and conflict. It takes real courage to work with a therapist, and almost all of the leaders with whom I spoke said it was one of the most important things they’d ever done. This assisted self-discovery is the true “hero’s journey” too few leaders make.
The leaders I interviewed told me that after they make a genuinely courageous decision, they are never the same. Courageous decisions change you, because:
- Your lived values are revealed—no baloney or platitudes, just the real stuff of leadership.
- You have often experienced living with fear and self-doubt about the impact of your decisions on others.
- You may have learned whom your real friends are and perhaps whom your hidden enemies are.
You have had to deal with your own ambiguity about making the tough calls and the anxiety that often accompanies them. Yet you have had to move forward anyway. Senator John McCain captured this courage moment so well when he said, “Fear is the opportunity for courage, not proof of cowardice.”
In sum, courageous decision making is an experience fraught with both dangers and blessings. You might receive some bruises. But if you come out the other end whole, you will probably be stronger and far wiser.