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7 Hard Truths You Discover as a Leader

| September 13, 2022

by Brian McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, President of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected].]
What is the hardest thing you have had to do as a leader?

This Tuesday Reading is focused on the difficult things that often come with a leader’s role, especially the higher you go in your role and responsibility. Leadership is about doing the right thing both strategically and ethically, yet no one at MOR suggests this is always going to be easy. Nor do we mean to infer when you do “the right things” people are going to applaud your decision.

In asking some of my colleagues about the hardest things they had to do as leaders and filtering this through my own experiences, here are seven hard things leader may need to do.  No doubt there are others you could send me if you are so inclined.
1. Making Difficult Decisions Comes With the Leader’s Role

Deciding which requests get funded and which ones don’t.  This can be a difficult decision when many proposals align with the strategic direction and people’s expectations are high that their proposal will get funded.
Another difficult decision is launching an initiative that is the right thing to do yet will be unpopular with your stakeholders and staff.
Realizing you need to pull the plug on what seemed like a great initiative, yet it is evident, that this will cost more than projected and not produce the desired results. When you have been the champion for an idea and you are closely associated with this effort, it is difficult to come to terms with this decision. There are also the implications of this for the funds expended, the staff who are disappointed, and reputations that get damaged.
2. There Will Almost Always Be People Who Don’t Agree and Some Who Will Criticize Your Decisions

You can’t please everyone all the time.  By the way, it isn’t part of your job description to do so.
You do want your clients, customers and key stakeholders to be pleased with the services and products overall, yet there will be times when their interests or needs don’t align.

It is challenging for leaders who want to be liked or want to please others to address all the concerns people will raise.  Those concerns may slow you down from what needs to be done.

In some cultures, like higher education, people feel even more emboldened to criticize a leader’s decisions. In other sectors people are much more likely to align and get on with the implementation than to get on with the campaign against the proposed course of action.
As a leader it is more important to be respected than liked.
3. Terminating Anyone’s Employment Is a Hard Thing to Do Yet Necessary

As my colleague and friend Laura Patterson shared, “one of the hardest things I had to do was a large layoff of staff during a recession.  It was heartbreaking to do the layoff and it was during a time when jobs were not plentiful. I knew the impact was big on the lives of individuals and their families.”
As my colleague and friend Jack Wolfe shared, “Some people will not make the cut, either because they can’t deliver the needed results, or they can’t work with others. These folks must go, as they either lower the standards of performance for the organization or create unneeded conflict. Most of us do not act swiftly enough on this, as these folks are often “good and decent” people. Regardless, we must decide. The saddest note is that after we do, others will often say to us: “what took you so long?”
4. Delivering Bad News Is Never Easy

Leaders need to be willing and skilled at managing difficult conversations. There will be performance concerns or times when you need to share disappointing news or when a decision doesn’t go a person’s way. It is important to be able to handle these interactions constructively.
Leaders need to be able to address and resolve conflicts as needed. Those who are conflict avoidant may allow issues to go unresolved.  This creates further difficulties.
Whether you are telling people they didn’t get the job or the promotion or the decision they were looking for, it will result in disappointment and in some cases even disengagement. There will be times when the leader can provide the news and help the individual process this.  You can turn the discussion into a moment where the person understands even if they don’t accept the outcome.
5. You Need to Meet People Where They Are Rather Than Where You Are

As one Dean shared, she recognizes the challenges in meeting people where they are. It is challenging to do so when you are on a mission. Leaders will engage and explore ideas sometimes for months before setting a direction or selecting an initiative. In some cases, there may be consultation with different stakeholders. In other circumstances, this consideration isn’t possible due to the nature of this issue. In either case, once the strategy or priority or course of action is established, there may be a gap between the leaders and those they hope will enlist and engage in going there with them.
Building support for the proposed direction can be a challenging hill to climb.
6. You May Be Bound by Decisions or Direction You Didn’t Choose

Most every leader reports to someone. Even the CEO is accountable to the Board or the University President reports to the Trustees. There will be times when a direction is set and you need to accept this outcome even though you would not have chosen this course of action. In these situations, leaders are expected to get on-board, staying with the prescribed talking points publicly and privately. This is how organizations stayed aligned.

Yet this can create a dilemma from time to time for leaders. One such circumstance is when you strongly disagree with the direction yet need to get aligned in helping bring this about.  It is easier to follow the talking points if you aren’t required to be out front in the implementation.
This is even more of a dilemma if one of your values is to be transparent.  Tim Slottow, another colleague and friend at MOR who has had a number of senior roles, shared: “one of the hardest things for me as a leader was to make consequential decisions that I knew were in the best interest of the institution but that would leave many impacted stakeholders not able to understand and possibly misinterpret the reason for the decision.  I was not able to fully disclose and explain the “why” due to confidentiality and the need to protect people and/or contracts. I agonized over these decisions because I believe people deserve to understand the rationale behind important decisions, whether they agree with it or not.  When I had to make large, impactful decisions that people may not understand, I knew it could erode their trust and my ability to continue to effectively lead.”   
There may even be times when the decisions aren’t ethical or aligned with our values.

These are what my colleague and friend Gary Augustson says, are “to be fired for moments.”
7. You Can’t Right All the Wrongs

As Mark Askren another colleague and friend shared, “You can’t right all of the wrongs you encounter, including inequities. At least not in the short term. You have to prioritize.  This means leaving some significant problems unaddressed at times.”
In Closing
These are seven of the hard responsibilities that come with leading.  If you have others, please feel free to send them to me, as we need to help leaders develop the skills required to handle and navigate these situations as effectively as possible.


This Week’s Survey

Which do you feel is the hardest part of leadership?

  1. Making Difficult Decisions
  2. People Who Don’t Agree and Criticize the Decisions or You
  3. Terminating Anyone’s Employment
  4. Delivering Bad News
  5. Meeting People Where They Are versus Where You Are
  6. Being Bound by Decisions or Direction You Didn’t Choose
  7. You Can’t Right All the Wrongs


From Last Week
Last week we asked: How often does your team get together for at least a half day of strategic planning?

  • 10% said monthly
  • 9% said every 2-4 months
  • 32% said 1-2 times per year
  • 21% said every few years
  • 28% said never or almost never

What interesting insight to see the variation in our responses!  There is no “right” or “wrong” answer in terms of an exact cadence to strategic planning or amount of time to dedicate to those sessions.  However, a key is to make it a habit that works for you and your team, including aligning with other strategy planning at your institution, and ensuring mechanisms to translate plans into action and action into sustainable results.