This blog was written in response to a question that I was asked about a previous blog on performance management.

I have to make a really hard decision. Already I can feel my anxiety levels rising. My mind is racing, going over a multitude of possible outcomes. I find some of the most difficult decisions to be the ones where there is the most personal risk. I already know that when I break the news to this person they are going to be incredibly hurt. They’ll become angry; go through a range of emotions and may never be able to forgive me. The relationship we currently have may never recover. At risk for me is that person’s respect and perception of me. At risk is the trust others in the organisation have in me as a leader. Will the hard decisions I have to make grow or diminish trust?

I know that others around this person won’t understand why this decision had to be made. They will side with the ‘victim’ of the decision, offer genuine care and support to them and I’ll get the icy stares. “How could he possibly do that to you; and we thought he was such a caring person; he calls himself a Christian?” will be some of the comments said about me, sometimes within earshot. I know that I will never be able to fully explain why the decision had to be made and defend my actions.

As for any compelling leader tough decisions have to be made, often with the long-term view in mind and not the short game. For a school leader these sorts of decisions could be around the expulsion of a student, the termination of a staff member, or a restructure and program of redundancies.

There is a common adage that says you can afford to make a tough decision every now and againĀ once you have banked enough credits in your ‘trust’ account. This line of thought suggests that you can make a withdrawal and then save up enough trust to make another hard call. I wonder if this is true. If it were we might never make the tough call for fear that we don’t have enough in the trust account. How do you know what’s in your account now?

Learning from four highly trusted transformational leaders it was obvious that trust isn’t associated with being nice, or allowing people to have what they want, or making people happy. Highly trusted leaders make hard decisions all the time, if they didn’t they wouldn’t be transforming the organisation in which they work into an even better place.

When it comes to a really difficult call that is going to significantly impact a person, and an ever increasing circle of people around them (the ripple effect), highly trust leaders call on four of the 10 key practices proven to generate trust:

  1. Consultative decision making: While it isn’t appropriate to consult widely when making a hard decision that requires significant confidentiality, trusted leaders still consult. In cases where a person is going to be significantly affected they may well be consulting with their Board, or an external organisation to help them make the best decision. Often there is never a ‘right’ decision; right, like truth, depends on your own perspective. It is important to gain the perspective of others, particularly when you have an emotional attachment to the situation.
  2. Listen: Trusted leaders listen carefully to what is happening around them. They listen careful to hear how people are feeling, predict how people might feel, and respond in a caring way. This can be incredibly difficult because sometimes you just feel like defending yourself and responding in anger in an attempt to tell ‘your side of the story’. Sadly you can’t do this. You have to forgo yourself.
  3. Care: Even though you sometimes have to make a person redundant, expel a student, or terminate a person’s employment you can do it with genuine care for that person. They may feel that you don’t care at all when they are angry with you, but how you respond to that anger, and how you put in place support mechanisms and respect the person will go a long way in terms of trust. Even though you have to make a hard call others will learn that you will still care for them and treat them fairly and with respect.
  4. Confidentiality: It is so tempting to justify why you have to make a call, but to really care for the person most affected you can’t. Even though people will be angry with you, be thinking all sorts of nasty things about you just remember that you aren’t the victim.

Compelling leadership takes great courage. It calls on you to put aside your own emotion, to put aside yourself and behave in ways that engender genuine trust in your leadership. To be trusted doesn’t mean you avoid the hard decisions, quite the contrary, trust is about why you make those decisions, how you make them, and how you care for the people impacted.

Having said all this there is still a risk. I know it isn’t going to be any easier for me. We’re all still human after all. Will I get it right? Probably not. Will it be the best decision? Only time will tell.