Image courtesy of Getty.
Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
Covid-19 brought many leadership lessons. One of the biggest lessons is the importance of pivoting and remaining flexible as we work to regain footing in a radically shifting world. Prioritizing growth and embracing transformative change in this dynamic environment is necessary to navigate uncertainty and stay ahead of the curve. Successful leadership in today’s tumultuous environment demands a willingness to think differently and take risks—all while keeping an eye on the future. Business growth can be complicated, calling for equal parts courage and empathy.
Leaders today are pressured to be courageous and make difficult decisions. I can attest from my recent experience that decisions that help transform organizations are often complex and unpopular. Take, for example, the current string of tech-company layoffs. Data shows more than 168,000 jobs were lost among tech companies in the first four months of 2023, compared to over 164,000 jobs in all of 2022. Loss of employment is excruciatingly painful for all involved.
As a leader in higher education, I have experienced pain and vulnerability alongside my students, faculty and staff. During the height of Covid-19, I made thousands of difficult decisions—and in many cases, it wasn’t possible to make everyone happy. For example, once we were allowed to reopen the university, we decided to return to face-to-face instruction or remain online. Many students preferred face-to-face instruction, whereas many professors wanted to opt for online education.
Difficult decisions may leave some people displeased, but leadership calls for prioritizing the organization. In scenarios like this, leaders should ask themselves why their decision is leaning in a particular direction and what information may influence their decision-making process. Doing so can set the stage for collaborative decision making. I rely on only necessary data and methodical thinking to make decisions as an engineer. Using structured decision-making processes and having the required expertise can alleviate angst when questions arise on how you arrived at a specific conclusion.
Do not apologize for making unpopular decisions.
There is little you can do to change the minds of those within your organization who are displeased when things don’t go their way. I know how hard it is to see disapproval in employees’ eyes, but leaders must make difficult decisions. Once a decision is final, there is no benefit in picking apart your thought process. Acknowledge its negative impact on your people and show empathy for their pain. It is possible to lead with compassion while remaining steadfast to organizational goals. Taking ownership of a decision shows integrity, so stand firm as you take the heat from unhappy people.
That said, refrain from wavering or arguing with others about your reasoning. Leadership is an important role, and it’s not easy. Remember, it is impossible to please everyone. Difficult decisions almost always bring hurt feelings and lead to a certain level of discord.
Hold people accountable for bad behavior.
Early in my career, I was a college professor intent on broadening minds and helping my students grow into the next generation of innovators. I loved teaching—few roles are more rewarding than supporting students as they grow intellectually and socially. To create a positive environment in my classroom, I emphasized the need for mutual respect. We needed to cover lots of ground—STEM courses involve learning complex material. My students knew my expectations were high, and almost all rose to the challenge by studying hard and focusing in the classroom.
I do recall one student who was the exception—he was unhappy and made it difficult for the students around him to focus and concentrate from day one. I calmly explained to him in private that I would not tolerate his disruptive behavior. As a professor, I was responsible for providing my students with a calm environment conducive to learning. As a university president, the same holds for team members—they are held accountable for disruptive behavior.
I can’t stress enough the importance of clarifying that while people are entitled to their opinion, you expect nothing less than civil and professional conduct. Disruptive behavior can weaken team morale and make for a stressful work environment. Ensure that your employees understand there will be consequences for toxic behavior.
Rebuild morale and reward positive behavior.
Similarly, it’s important to recognize and reward those who stand beside you in difficult times. When you must make a hard choice, express gratitude to your employees who are willing to trust in your leadership. When your employees unite with a determined spirit to move forward, find ways to reward their dedication and support. From a heartfelt thank-you note to kind gestures, how you respond to their encouragement and support can positively shift morale and motivate your organization.
Remember to model strength and confidence as a leader. At the same time, it is okay to let your employees know you feel deeply hurt at being treated with hostility for making unpopular but entirely necessary decisions.
Acknowledge hurt and practice daily self-care.
When tensions run high, it’s easy to feel like you must present as invincible to your team. However, leaders are only human; we are not immune to pain from hostile actions or words. None of us are above experiencing hurt feelings brought about by viciousness or aggression. Chronic stress is hard on the body and mind, so prioritize daily activities that help you recharge and destress. Commune with nature or fit in strength training—anything to allow yourself the space to breathe freely.
If you can’t get your bearings, do seek support. Connect with other leaders in similar positions, seek guidance from mentors and consider professional counseling. We’ve seen a vast uptick in the need for mental health support since the start of the pandemic—leaders are not immune to experiencing struggles.
Always lead with integrity, and don’t be afraid to let your people know you, too, feel the impact of difficult-but-necessary decisions.