People are not the product of their circumstances, author Stephen R. Covey once said. They're the product of their decisions. If that's true for ordinary people, it's doubly so for successful leaders.

That's because successful leaders are decisive, by definition. And where the choices they face seem complex, they're often very simple--meaning that the come down to two distinct choices. Of course, "simple" doesn't mean the same thing as "easy;" it's often very difficult to know the right choice to make.

Here are five of these deceptively simple but very hard decisions that great leaders make every day--sometimes over and over and over in the same day.

1. The decision between long term goals and short term goals

It's easy to say that people should always focus on long term goals. But who truly does that? There are many times when you won't be around (figuratively, I hope) to chase after long term goals if you don't focus now on short-term.

Example: Long-term, let's suppose you want to be the #1 player in your field. You determine that accomplishing that will require changing your main product offering. But in the short-term, you depend on the revenue you're getting from current clients. 

This requires striking a balance. Get it right four days out of five, and I think you're way ahead of the curve.

2. The decision between adherence to vision and compromise

I'm skeptical of a lot of the talk about "grit" lately, because while resolution is a virtue, naked stubbornness is not. The same thing applies to vision. People need a compelling vision in order to be inspired and succeed, but it's rare that they respond well to an autocrat.

Additionally, even if people respect roles and boundaries, truly great performers want to have impact, not just effect. This means trying others' ideas sometimes, even if you are convinced that yours are better.

My colleague Justin Bariso explored the phrase Jeff Bezos at Amazon uses to breach this gap: "Disagree and commit." It's worth reading in full. If Bezos can do it as a leader, you probably can too.

3. The decision between yourself and others

They say a great leader will always seek to serve others first. But to serve other people--to lead them--you have to serve yourself. That means looking after your own needs, and maybe even being selfish sometimes. 

Example: I just took a 10-day vacation. That meant my colleague Kunal had to work harder while I was gone. But after months of working 60-plus hours a week, I needed this. I know I can contribute better, and hopefully make his life a little better, too, having taken the time. I had to put myself first in the short term, in order to be better for everyone in the long term.

4. The decision between yes and no

Successful leaders are presented with all kinds of opportunities, and only the boldest and luckiest can identify the truly great ones. I think there are two great negatives in life that we all eventually learn, and that lead to calmer, happier lives. 

The first is that none of us will live forever, and the second is that all of us will miss out on great opportunities at some time. They're negatives, at least at first blush, but once you come to deal with them, you recognize how much clearer your choices become.

5. The decision between more and better

Here's what we know about the future: it will be different. But on the other hand, you're working here, and now. So even if you think you see clearly that the future will demand something very different, you don't always have the freedom to change. 

Man, that's existential-sounding. Clayton Christensen, the famous Harvard Business School professor put it much more succinctly, coining the phrase, "the innovator's dilemma."

It demonstrates why true positive change usually comes from outsiders, who don't have any vested interest in current systems. The most successful leaders are the ones who can navigate both paths at the same time. 

Published on: Apr 24, 2018
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