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The Lonely Moment of Truth the real test of leadership

The Lonely Moment of Truth - the real test of leadership

Not so long ago a CEO asked me to have a beer with him after work. I was a little surprised; this was not his usual style. I sat with him later in a quiet bar and he started to talk about what he said was ‘the toughest, most painful decision in his career’. His dilemma centred on a member of his executive team whose career and his had personally and professionally intertwined over many years, someone he thought of as a friend but now whose inability to function at this level was becoming more and more apparent and difficult decisions about his future had to be made.

The CEO’s challenge was one which defines and crystallises the essence of a leader; it is how he or she faces up to taking the final responsibility for a decision which may be controversial, unpopular or painful.

In the years I have been working with and advising the leadership of many organisations, the powerful often emotional impact of these moments has sometimes led to quite poignant discussions about the real challenge of leadership and why it inherently can be a somewhat lonely role.

It’s not usually the big commercial decisions that leaders struggle with as much as the personal ‘close-to’ ones. It is the moment that you have to kill off a favourite project; deal, as in this case, with a friend and colleague you’ve known for a long time but is no longer performing; choose between two great but equally uncertain schemes both with highly motivated advocates etc. In all situations it feels as if there is potentially a high emotional cost to oneself and to others, a whispering voice that asks - ‘what sort of leader, what sort of person am I?’

It is the moment in which you know you are the primary agent of what happens next. Even if the decision is made collectively, you have ultimate responsibility – that is what you are paid for. You can’t duck or dodge this. Though many ‘leaders’ try putting off decisions, avoiding the ‘lonely moment of truth’ when their leadership is made visible. In the end you have to make the call.

How do you deal with it is critical: Do you:

(a) Procrastinate, floundering around damaging the business and weakening yourself in the eyes of others - who recognise your dilemma and your failure to respond to it

(b) Take the decision but ascribe the reasons behind to other people/outside forces. Such behaviour is soon seen as essentially politicking and manipulative.  

(c) Face the moment and back what you believe to be the right decision, knowing people may be hurt and may feel they have been let down by you.

It is in these moments that the real work of leadership is done.  Leadership is often defined by these almost symbolic moments of truth which in turn establishes the performance culture of the business. 

How do you successfully face this moment and deal with it well? I guess there are those in leadership positions who are untroubled by matters such as these. The management media has been dwelling on this recently with suggestions that psychopathic managers can make the best leaders. Whilst some of the arguments around this are a little shaky to be true – it is the case that people with psychopathic tendencies will not be troubled by emotional consideration around others being hurt or disappointed. However it is a giant step to say they make good leaders - the damaging culture that can arise is not conducive to long term organisational health. 

Five principles should shape your response in these lonely moments of truth:

1) Acknowledge this IS an emotional as well as business challenge for all concerned including yourself. This is precisely why you are in a leadership role because you are there to deal with it well (and if you don’t want to deal with this, you may be very talented but you are not a leader).

2) Recognise that you are there to ensure the ongoing sustainable health of the business and all the people in it not just look after a sub-group of people.

3) Acknowledge the cost of not deciding and accept in your decisions you may be wrong – your job is to ensure the best decisions are made in situations that are ambiguous and that is what you have to answer to. 

4) Ensure that your decisions and actions are deeply respectful of others and although what you do is not dictated solely by the emotional reactions of one or more others you do acknowledge this as something you need to manage. 

5) Accept that you may be the focus of short term anger and resentment – this is the loneliness of the role BUT people soon move on and begin to recognise the importance of what you have done. (AND some will see it straight away!)

Furthermore, talking through your reluctance to take action with another will do much to make this situation feel less challenging - though choose your confidant wisely!

Leadership Matters – a series of personal reflections on leadership

Comments on this Post

Terry Priestley on 18th April 2016

Ah, the challenge of being friendly towards, as opposed to friends with, colleagues is an eternal hurdle which becomes higher with each rung of the career ladder we climb! Being realistic, humane and speaking the truth in such situations is surely preferable to 'killing them with kindness and burying them with a smile'!

Terry Priestley on 18th April 2016

Ah, the challenge of being friendly towards, as opposed to friends with, colleagues is an eternal hurdle which becomes higher with each rung of the career ladder we climb! Being realistic, humane and speaking the truth in such situations is surely preferable to 'killing them with kindness and burying them with a smile'!

Sean Austin on 17th April 2016

Good blog! If you duck the tough decisions, they always come back to bite you and, invariably, with more serious consequences. That is not to underestimate how difficult it can be to make the decision.

Jan Cross on 17th April 2016

This is a familiar situation to many of us and I am not surprised you have had to counsel people about it. I tell all my future leaders this though: don't get too close to your staff, always keep a respectful distance as you may have to fire them one day - for whatever reason. This is much easier in countries other than UK, where people tend to muddy socializing with work - don't. Second, if you are in that situation, you can help soften the blow (to yourself as well as the person) by offering them choices - outplacement, a smaller job in a nice location...something they will hopefully see as a plus of a bad news situation, and you will feel you have done something to help. But don't let yourself get in that situation again!

Steve Carter on 16th April 2016

Good point Roger - in this instance it was a case of a problem inherited rather than a created ! I think the question about how did the issue arise points to another one as well - how do we cope with 'evolving' situations in which people who once were flourishing in a role well cannot adapt to new circumstances.

Roger Long on 13th April 2016

So true. How we treat the poor performers is a real indicator of the culture at the top and informs everyone what may lay in store for themselves some day. I would add another point though - organisation should ask itself how did this issue arise, so was the appointment made on an emotional basis or a skills set analysis and apply lessons learned... Good blog!

Andrew Kerry on 13th April 2016

This is so critical to the sustained performance of an organization or to embedding change and yet so little is invested, comparatively, in this compared to 'boxes, bits and business cases'. When done well it can lead to surprising responses even from those who are getting the 'bad news' - it's not unheard of for people to say thanks...

Steve Carter on 13th April 2016

I think this is to do with the fact that we have a strong 'event' mentality Phil - always building up to a big something ... and seeing that as the end

Steve Carter on 13th April 2016

It is strange isn't Rob - all the stuff about leaders talks about how they motivate and positively emotionally impact others but little, very little about how they cope and emotionally respond themselves ?

robert twigger on 13th April 2016

very good points about loneliness at the top and good to focus on emotional side of leading which is far too often treated as something mechanical

Philip Lindsay on 12th April 2016

Good blog, Steve - raising important issues about the courage and commensurate behaviours required to handle tough issues effectively as a leader - but also as followers. The forthcoming EU referendum is testing/will test many of us in similar ways - and there will be an winners and losers! Typically, our leaders have equipped themselves to fight 'battles' - whether in the Boardroom or militarily. But I'd argue that they/we have invested far less time in developing/deploying effective capabilities or strategies to deal with the aftermath of outcomes - whether 'victory' or 'defeat'. Such strategies/skills are of paramount importance for leading/rebuilding/sustaining organisations and nations - and should be part of the competency set for leaders and followers - and co-decision makers. They help win the 'war' as opposed to the 'battle' - and I think that they are significantly undervalued and underplayed.

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