We've all heard the phrase, "The lesser of two evils," but sometimes leaders are faced with decisions where even the lesser of two evils is not clear. Sometimes decisions seem equally crummy in either direction, depending on your perspective. I was reminded of this while watching the news the other night, as yet another crisis evolves in the Middle East. It appears, once again, that an action by the United Nations and/or the United States will be forthcoming, and we will be judged harshly by our involvement or lack thereof.
So what do you do when faced with decisions where no one is going to be happy? It's sometimes hard not to seek out acceptance, appreciation, and validation that we are making the "right" decisions. We want our followers to stand behind us and support us, and when they don't, we can take it personally - as a slap in the face that says, "I don't trust you are doing the right thing." This is where clarity and awareness are most critical. They are how to remain clear on our intent so we make decisions that benefit the greater good. They're how we are able to weave through and not be clouded by all the voices we hear that are based in fear. They're how to find some peace ourselves, when faced with a difficult paradox. So when you find yourself caught between rocks and hard places, here are three things that might help.
Sit and Breathe
There's only one way I know to stop all the mind chatter long enough to see through the fog: sitting meditation centered on the breath. I've recently recommitted myself to this, which has been an on-again, off-again practice for me. By paying attention to everything that's going on in and around my body, by dismissing thought as it tries to enter (or blending it with my breath), I am able to experience life as it is, non-judgmentally. This state, when practiced, can then be carried over into daily life including those times of tough decision-making. Meditate. And keep going back to it when you quit doing it. For the novice, here's a very simple guide to sitting meditation that also lets you experience the 4 energy patterns that work within you.
See the Big Picture
In the book, The Zen Leader, Dr. Whitelaw calls this "flip" From Local Self To Whole Self. What she suggests we do is to look beyond our own immediate inner circle to see all the players and, through role-playing, feel and experience the fears, challenges, advantages and disadvantages around your decision. To me, this is like viewing things from the peripheral wash of a floodlight, vs. the single beam of a flashlight. How much more we can see! Here's a helpful little guide from that chapter called From Local Self To Whole Self: Seeing All The Players, that illustrates how far-reaching our decisions really are.
Manage the Paradox
One of the most difficult challenge any leader may face is in managing a paradox that has a high emotional component to it. We see this in religious beliefs, political beliefs and cultural differences all the time. They create potential for over-reaction and under-reaction that keep us locked in the extremes of one side. "The leader who can see and show others that we're not dealing with a 'slippery slope' so much as a figure 8 of managing a healthy tension within bounds we can agree upon, moves the dialogue - and the company - to a higher level," states Dr. Whitelaw. "The leader who can tease apart 'what exactly did we do last time that caused problems?' and identify thresholds within which we can maneuver successfully raises the bar of performance." Here's a guide to managing paradox, from The Zen Leader, that may be very helpful to you.
The toughest decisions we must make leave everyone feeling that they're not quite happy with the outcome. I was told this from a court arbitrator once, and it certainly holds true when you are managing a paradox. It's so much easier to take sides and have at least SOME of the people supporting you. But with paradox, that's not in the best interest of the company, the country or whatever collection of people you lead. Through clarity and awareness, it's easier to get through this unpleasantness. An unfaltering vision and a clear mind will help you navigate these waters.
And don't forget to breathe…