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Leader in the Headlights: When Any Action is Better than None

By December 28, 2009Wellbeing for You

A few weeks ago, driving home on a pitch black night, a client of mine was startled by three deer standing in the middle of the road. In a flash, one deer jumped to the right, another to the left. The third deer just stood there, frozen in the headlights… until impact. My client felt disturbed by it all: angry at the deer, upset with himself, and perplexed that this surreal event so eerily recalled his own work dilemmas. Back at his desk, he says, he’s that deer. Here comes an onrushing dilemma, he sees two obvious options, and yet he’s frozen, hoping for a better solution.

As he talked me through it, I could definitely relate, but in my case the problem is a puppy. Remember that high-energy pup I mentioned in a blog this summer? Well, he’s become our “wild child.” Recent escapades, like eating half of his bed, have stirred up so much havoc in our household that my husband and I are torn between jumping left or right. These are serious and emotionally-wrenching discussions: 1) Do we find him another home? That’s an alternative that leaves us feeling miserable, like failures. Or, 2) do we stick it out and endure these nonstop stresses? How long until puppyhood is finally over?!

I don’t mean to put our Marley-and-Me dilemmas on par with the conundrums of the executive leader, but the process can feel similar: like a life’s on the line. As leaders, we wrestle with tough dilemmas all the time. How do we confront employee burnout when we can’t afford more people to offset the workload? When time and energy seem limited (that’s always, of course), do we spend them growing new markets or cementing existing relationships? Which problems take priority on an already-bursting list?

The problem with our problems? If we wrestle too long, inertia can set in. Not deciding is a decision, whether conscious or not: it’s the decision to stay put till something better presents itself. Sometimes that’s the right approach, but when you’re in the middle of the road and the headlights are bearing down? Time to move!

Moving from the middle of the road usually means letting go of the hunt for the perfect answer. Change the way you’ve defined your problem; it could be that the question you’re asking is seriously limiting your potential answers. (A dear friend recently reminded me of an Einstein tenet: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”)

Once you’ve defined your problem, brainstorm completely new alternatives to resolving your dilemma; the very act of brainstorming can kick you out of the ambivalence (that polarized either/or thinking) that has you trapped. And if you’re still torn between multiple options, use the values of your organization or the principles of your life to guide you toward the best choice. For instance, when even the largest of global companies make values-centered decisions, they are finding innovation, productivity, credibility, and competitive advantage.

One thing that works for me is to allow myself a specific timeframe to sit with a particular dilemma. After that period—whether a day or a month — I know it’s time to act. I must do something, anything; at the very least I know I’ll learn from what I’ve chosen. Through this practice of experimenting and learning I find I’m building wiser instincts for better, more informed decisions in the future.

As for our puppy, Trek? Our decision timeframe expired… and we’ve decided to keep him. But we’re committed to change, to movement: his behavior (and ours!) simply must improve. (Anyone know a good dog trainer?!)

Photo by the rhumb line