When leaders continually and constantly grapple with tough questions and develop a list of standards that serves as more than a pretty poster, their beliefs serve as the bedrock of the organization’s strategy and provide guidelines about how and what to change. When beliefs veer from espoused values and create a dysfunctional or confusing set of standards, the opposite occurs; and people start to behave in ways that hurt the organization.
However, when leaders understand that they must make the tough, often unpopular calls, and then have the courage to do so, organizational excellence can take root. These successful tough calls have four constructs: moral compass, sound judgment, fortitude and experience.
A strong moral compass demands that leaders do something, not that they merely be in a state or condition of integrity. Successfully making tough calls involves those lifelong activities that actualize ethics and integrity.
Integrity is a not a raincoat you put on when the business climate indicates you should. It is a condition that guides your life—not just a set of protocols. Courageous leaders don’t acquire their moral compasses solely by learning general rules. They also develop them—those deliberative, emotional and social skills that enable them to put their understanding of integrity into practice—through practice.
Experience gives us a respect for history without us being star-struck about it, shackled to it or straight-jacketed by it. It allows us to put previous decisions in perspective, to realize that never failing also means never taking appropriate risks or playing in a tough enough league. Experience also teaches us that tough calls come more often by imposition than invitation.
Psychological research tells us that people who overcome adversity build confidence and self-esteem that they can do it again. When we repeatedly play the cards we’re dealt, overcome the obstacles and emerge unscathed or at least still in one piece, the knowledge tells us that we can repeat their successes.
In my more than 35 years of consulting, I have found that — without question — in the business arena, sound judgment is the single most significant differentiator between those who can make successful tough calls and those who cannot. While fortitude addresses a willingness to make tough calls, judgment involves the ability to make them. Specifically, the most crucial forecaster of executive success involves advanced critical thinking skills—the specific cognitive abilities that equip us to solve problems, make effective decisions and keep a global perspective. These strengths enable a leader to anticipate future consequences, to get to the core of complicated issues and to zero in on the essential few while putting aside the trivial many.
When companies embrace a change orientation, they consider the tough calls that lead to innovation part of the way they do business, not a process or project that they engage in for a given period of time. People innovate when they see a benefit—when they perceive that the change will improve their condition, not when someone else wants it. These questions will help determine your results-orientation:
- Do we make decisions we can implement immediately?
- Will employees accept leader-only or expert-only decisions?
- How adeptly do we evaluate risk?
- How comfortable would we feel about giving up the status quo?
- How have and how will market changes demand change of us?
- How well does the speed we prefer match the pace the market demands?
Leaders should measure their organizational climate in one way and only one way: results. What outputs do you want and expect? Are you getting them? If not, rethink your approach. Do leaders in your organization have the ability to make tough calls, the willingness to make them, a proven track record of success and a strong moral compass for evaluating options? If they lack the last one, forget the first three.