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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
A few weeks ago, I found a fascinating article in HBR on courageous leadership. The author explains how prior and outdated notions of courage refer to the “tough guy” view: physically strong, aggressive and infallible. But there is a more modern view that sees courageous leaders as those who put principles first and focus on making environments safer for others and who are willing to take risks and make difficult decisions, especially in the face of uncertainty and adversity.
Resilience, perseverance, honesty, humility, integrity, compassion, courage and remaining committed to a vision and goals despite obstacles and setbacks—these are all characteristics I associate with fearless leadership. As a Cuban immigrant who came to the U.S. as an infant to escape a revolution, I have a personal quote that I live by: “Every difficulty you have overcome in your life has prepared you for the great leader you are today.” When you do not hesitate or step back from taking action, your organization is better for it.
But what does that look like when you are faced with tough choices? Based on my own experiences, here are three things leaders should keep front of mind when making difficult decisions.
1. Making difficult decisions can transform and inspire growth.
After deep consideration and reviewing all the facts, I recently made a difficult leadership decision based on securing our university’s future prosperity and growth. Our Board unanimously voted to close several severely under-enrolled academic programs so we can reinvest in those with higher growth potential that are aligned with our students’ interests. This was not a popular decision, and it may have been easier in the short term to “kick the can down the road” to avoid some internal and external pushback. But we chose to act now and do the right thing pursuant to the university’s governing process.
A small plaque from my work as a young engineer states: “Only God Speaks the Truth. The Rest of You Must Bring Data.” Here is the thing: People will always have opinions, but no one can argue the numbers and the facts. Even when faced with unpopular decisions, a leader’s focus should be on creating a sustainable and prosperous future. As a courageous leader, you should prioritize your organization’s long-term goals based on facts, data and expertise rather than on popular sentiment so as to move the organization forward in a more sustainable manner.
2. Communicate with clarity and act with conviction.
Leaders must respond to probing questions and clearly articulate the reasons for making unpopular decisions. Facts speak volumes, so share them in a straightforward way with all stakeholders, including those resistant to change. Understand there is an emotional component to many business decisions.
Take, for instance, IBM’s decision to stop production of their personal computer in 2005. For IBM, the inventor of the PC, to let go of its manufacturing because it couldn’t compete on the production front was no doubt a difficult decision from an emotional perspective. Still, considering the long-term costs, it was a sound financial decision for the company.
Change is often the bridge to a better future in business and in life. It is not always easy, but it can propel an organization forward and pave the way to new opportunities and progress. Effective communication on why the change is necessary can require much time and be particularly difficult for leaders with limited staff. Keep the message consistent, clear and concise. Doing so is crucial because, in a world of 24/7 connectivity, different constituents may view the issues from a diverse and unexpected lens.
To effectively communicate and implement such decisions, leaders must explain their rationale and the potential benefits to their constituents while acknowledging their concerns and addressing any negative consequences. Even the most carefully crafted communications plan may still need clarification and rework. Remain open to requests for additional information, and be ready to address issues that may remain unclear. Transparency, openness in the decision-making process and active engagement with stakeholders to build trust and understanding equate to responsible leadership.
3. Don’t take pushback and criticism personally.
Progress often comes at a steep cost, and leaders taking critical steps to safeguard the future of their organization are not always looked upon with favor. Even when change management processes have been followed correctly, those not favoring the decision may not be willing to go along. In order not to take pushback personally, consider the source. Remember that change is difficult for most, and many hesitate to take a new path because it requires stepping out of their comfort zone and confronting uncertainty or unfamiliarity. Doing so can also incite fear of failure, loss or the unknown, inhibiting people from taking risks.
Still, in life, change is inevitable. Great scientific discoveries, social change and medical breakthroughs require doing things differently. As leaders, we must reach high and keep front of mind that progress and growth need immense courage. Courageous leaders take calculated risks and make difficult decisions to achieve their goals, especially when facing opposition or uncertainty. Because when you embrace challenges and learn from failures, you can move forward and lead from a place of courage.
The challenges you face today will make you stronger and more successful in the future. Organizations must focus on their strengths, not the status quo. Principled and informed decision making, even if unpopular, can ultimately lead to long-term success and progress.
It’s important to take advantage of new opportunities. While growth comes with some initial struggles, the result is worth it. Complex and challenging decision making is our duty. Leaders who act with courage and conviction will help their organizations prosper.