“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Strike Three! Touchdown! Goal!

These are examples of sports decisions made by umpires and referees under the most challenging conditions. With no chance to sleep on the decision, officials are expected to put their feet in the right place and stand firm.

Bottom line – they do their job remarkably well. Despite their performance, they receive boos and insults we cannot use in this newsletter. Video and supervisory reviews find they are rarely wrong.

Officials bring order, not perfection, into chaos and their quiet leadership sustains the integrity of our sports. What can we learn from individuals who wear striped shirts and wield power with whistles?

Plenty if we check our cultural bias toward rule enforcers and increase our appreciation for grace under pressure. There are many parallels between professional sports and the workplace. Both environments are loaded with competition, judgment, and unmet egos. Leaders are expected to play through this noise and gracefully deliver results through others.

We respect leaders with integrity who stand firm when the right decision is made. On the other hand, we harshly judge flip floppers – individuals who change their mind based on the political winds, dodge accountability, and leave the rest of us to clean up the mess.

We have heard the empty promises from political and corporate leaders …

“Vote for me and I will not redistrict your kids”
“We will balance the budget with no new taxes”
“This plant will never close – your job is safe”
“Your paid time off request should not be a problem”

Before we judge these flip floppers too quickly, let’s look in the mirror. Are our feet in the right place making decisions? Do we stand firm? What would video review tell us about our performance?

I recall a situation when I made a good decision and walked it back. My feet were in the wrong place.

We were introducing a new policy to stop accepting late client payments on overdue accounts. The policy was clear and encountered very little pushback from our sales force. One day, an influential sales manager asked for an exception for one of his top producers and my response should have been easy.

Instead, my response was a disaster. Initially I held firm and resisted the request for an exception. Later in the day, the sales manager continued to push me hard to change my mind and I relented. Why did I change my mind? I was insecure about my sales manager and top producer relationships and wanted to please them, not realizing they would continue to respect me regardless of the decision.

He was surprised when I walked back my decision, and I felt shame for taking the path of least resistance. The greater humiliation came as my lack of resolve was discovered by my team. Despite their efforts to support the policy, I had caved. My credibility sank and there was confusion about our policy. I was experiencing and deserving my lowest leadership moment.

Later that day I met with my team, shared my mistake, supported the policy, and resolved to be a stronger leader. As new exception requests came in, I stood firm and my credibility began to return.

How do we become leaders with a strong mind, heart, and resolve?

Three keys to effective decisions and standing firm:

Standing firm is not standing by yourself
Leaders need the ideas of others to be their best. While the decision is yours, leaders need to reassure those who push back that their input is valued – even if not implemented. Pushback that is ignored or dismissed leads to an echo chamber, where the only voice you hear is your own.

Strength & Warmth
Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was often referred to as the “velvet hammer”. He was a great communicator and had a steely resolve inside. Leaders who blend great interpersonal skills with a firm resolve attract followers and get sustained results. They blend strength and warmth, which enables them to stand with others – not alone.

Decide & Adapt
Some leaders delay or change decisions, because not all the information is available. They wait until a product or service is almost perfect before they sign off to proceed. By then, the opportunity may be obsolete. Effective leaders understand you need to take calculated risks, moving forward with less than perfect or complete information, and adapt through implementation.

Leaders are expected to do their homework, make effective decisions, and lead us forward. The effective decision is not always perfect, yet it generates energy and can move us in the right direction. By moving forward we find the right place to lead. Make the call and don’t walk it back – we will follow you.

All my best,

Todd