Tough decisions have their birth when a leader’s faced with what Jim Collins calls the brutal facts. Brutal facts are those stubborn, nasty little realities that scream at us “leader, you have serious problems”. And serious problems always require making the tough decisions to solve them.
Which is the problem for so many leaders – when we’re faced with the brutal facts we must do something with them, we’re compelled to act, to make tough decisions. So one of the first and most courageous steps a leader must take is simply to face the facts and accept them for what they are – reality. But there’s a strong temptation to explain away the facts that will cause us difficulty, pain, extra work, or we simply don’t like.
This temptation has the same elements as the temptation people often faced with when they become lost, it’s a phenomena psychologists call “bending the map.” It’s when a lost person stops believing their map because it doesn’t line up with what they think their reality should be. They explain away the inconsistencies between what their map is telling them and where they find themselves. They chose not to believe their map but instead to believe their own distorted reality. This happens because the fear of being lost is such a powerful emotion that people will disregard all the facts, talk themselves into believing what is false all to stave off that fear, even if the result’s to become more lost.
From my experience the phenomena of bending the map doesn’t just occur when people are lost. Something similar happens when leaders bend their financial maps because they can’t accept their financial results, or they bend their people maps when they can’t believe people would act or perform in a certain way, or they bend their performance maps because the key indicators don’t line up with their expectations. When leaders lose the courage to face the brutal facts they begin to explain away and rationalize that their maps are wrong and their indicators are off base. They chose bending the map instead of taking the very courageous step of facing the brutal facts and admitting their lost.
So the very first step in making the tough decisions is to resist the temptation to bend whatever map you’re looking at and instead to face the brutal facts. To embrace the reality your map is telling you and, more importantly, to accept the responsibility to change course by making the tough decision.
Is there any place in your leadership where you are or have bent the map, where you’ve failed to face the brutal facts? What have you done to find the courage to accept the harsh reality staring you in the face?
“I just played my last high school soccer game” our son, Jonathan, said amidst tears and hugs from teammates, classmates, parents, and coaches. Tis the season of lasts for our youngest son as he finishes his last year of high school. Being a 4 sport athlete and highly involved in the life of his school, Jonathan knows he has some more lasts before his year’s done. So based on the sadness he felt after his last soccer game I think he’s already dreading the next major last.
So on our way home from his last game I reminded Jonathan that a season of lasts doesn’t last forever. In fact a last of something means a first for something else. Though I acknowledged to him that early in the season of lasts it’s not always clear what the new first will be. For example Jonathan knows he’ll be going to college, which is comforting at a certain level, but he doesn’t know where. And not having a clear and specific picture of the first can make the season of lasts most difficult.
Yet once there’s clarity about the new first – in this case where Jonathan will be attending college, it’s easy to move from the sadness and loss to excitement about the promise that new first brings. But the key is finding that new first, to have a real and tangible plan beyond the last last. The more specific the plan, the easier it is to have the lasts feel like they’re giving birth to the new first instead of bringing an end to all things good and happy. That’s why this week Jonathan, Denise and I are making our first official college visits. Not to run away from the lasts but to put them into a different light, a light of a new first.
Now this all sounds really good as I’m saying it to a 17-year-old but here’s the real test of my fatherly advice – with Jonathan being our last child it also means Denise and I are also experiencing a season of lasts. After nine high school soccer seasons as a parent, Jonathan’s last game was also our last soccer game, his last basketball game will also be ours, his last day of school will be ours. I’ll admit I’m very sad about it all and already feel the loss that having no kids in school will bring to our lives.
Yet now it’s time for Denise and me to heed our own advice and have a plan and envision a life as “empty nesters”, and to discover our next first. What will it be? I don’t know but I’m excited to find out.