Dig Your Heels in, or Dig it All Up?

Two trusted team members questioned the wisdom of proceeding with a long-term community care project that I strongly believed in. The cost of maintaining the project was high, but I was certain the impact it was making made it well worth the sacrifice. When concerns were raised, I heard them out but stood firm in my resolve to continue. There was enough evidence of our ability to overcome the challenges that I couldn’t just walk away. Soon, the project was financed by a strong corporate foundation and we went on to deliver more than ever envisioned.

Seven years later, circumstances had changed and I was once again challenged about the sustainability of the project. At this point, a lot of resources, time and emotion had been invested. Quitting wasn’t something that came easily even though there were so many signs that our season was coming to a close. I wrestled with the consequences of changing my mind, and some of that was more self-centered than I cared to admit. Would changing my mind make me look weak and bring the wisdom of my earlier judgments into question? Deciding to end the project was hard on my pride, but it was the right thing to do in a changing climate.

Looking back, I’m grateful to those who challenged me. The first challenge forced me to clarify and then intentionally embrace the cost of our commitment. It galvanized my determination in a way that inspired the entire team’s support and led to years of success. Leaders need the courage to take a stand when it’s the right thing to do, but equally important is the ability to recognize when you shouldn’t. No one is always right. Even if the decision was good at the time, new information may indicate it’s not the course you would take if you had to make that choice to make now. This is the when a leader’s character is tested. Do you stubbornly double down on a bad decision, or are you open to revisiting it?

Revisiting your decision

Revisiting a decision is not the same thing as being indecisive. Indecisive people lack the ability to make the effective and timely decisions good leadership requires. If substantial evidence is presented that you’re on the wrong path, it isn’t a sign of weakness to change your mind; it’s demonstration of maturity and integrity. Holding your ground simply for the sake of appearances can be disastrous. It will lead to frustration among your team members and weaken respect for you.

Disregard sunk costs

Don’t let the weight of investment keep you from making the best decision; in the worst scenarios, it can cause irreparable damage to you and your organization. In a Leadercast Now video clip, “Making the Tough Calls,” Polar explorer and mountaineer Alison Levine, shares the painful experience of seeing storm clouds roll in as she approached the summit of Mt. Everest. It had taken months of planning, exertion and sacrifice to bring her and her team to this place, and the goal was mere yards away. Alison had to consider whether reaching it was worth risking the lives of her team.

“Trust me when I tell you that turning around and walking away from the deal is harder than continuing on. But when you’re up there in these mountains, you have to be able to make very tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect. And you have to think about how every single move you make is going to affect everyone else around you … it doesn’t matter how much blood, sweat and tears you [have] put into something. [If] the conditions aren’t right, you have to cut your losses, turn around and walk away. ” 

Move on

As Alison wisely inferred, if it’s clear you need to release something, do it quickly. No matter how hard it is, end the project and take responsibility for moving your team forward. Making a clean break with what isn’t working allows you to more effectively identify and pursue a fresh plan of action. Paul Schur, General Manager of Slalom, Atlanta describes the decision to end a deal or project as “blowing it up”. He advises, “At the end of the day, the longer you wait, the bigger the blow up is going to be, so if your gut is telling you that this is not the right thing, to keep forging forward, then call it out.” 

Communicate honestly

Once you’ve made the break, communicate. The more transparent you are about what has led to the ‘about face’ you’ve had to make, the more easily your decision will be accepted by those you lead. These three communication steps will help solidify trust as the team is called on to change direction:

· Take personal responsibility for the situation and share the reasons for a shift in strategy.

· Give credit to those who identified the mistake and helped you form a new plan of action.

· Outline the team’s future course with clarity and optimism.

Leadership requires crucifying your pride and making the best decisions possible for your team and organization. Humbly admitting you’re wrong takes as much strength as mustering up the courage to forge ahead. Either decision has the potential to reassure and inspire those around you.

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