What was your most unpopular leadership decision…that you were later thanked for making?

Imagine this: For a host of variables and reasons, you decide to ask one of your star performers to take some time off a month before the end of the fiscal year. Just as they were on track to achieve extraordinary results. A chorus of disapproval rises from outsiders and observers. What others don’t know, and what you’ve concluded from variety of objective sources, is that he is working 60-70 hours per week and on the brink of debilitating burnout. In the moment, your direct-report star performer expresses a begrudging acceptance of your decision. Underneath, though, you sense their resentment. And then…one month later during a 1:1 meeting with your direct report, they convey a deep and emotional ‘thank you’ for the difficult decision you made. “Hey boss, you helped save my career.”

Absurd? Maybe. Extreme? Yes. Poor or great leadership? You decide.

In fact, a similar situation occurred recently and the circumstances inspired me to explore: As a leader, have you made an unpopular decision that you were later thanked for making?

An Unlikely Example
Few leaders may face the type of a situation where they need to pull one of their star performers from their work. However, perhaps a larger number of leaders, at one time or another in their careers, will need to make an unpopular decision where there is a short-term concession for long-term benefit. On April 6, the manager of baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers made such a decision.  Can business leaders learn anything from this example?

A Very Public Unpopular Decision
Why on earth would a seasoned and experienced baseball manager pull a star pitcher 5 outs before the end of the game and a no-hitter? Most people reading this post have more baseball knowledge in their index finger than I will ever know. I know this: a no-hitter (when the opposing team does not record a single hit during the stretch of a game) is rare. How rare? In a single season of approximately 2,430 games played, there are on average 4 recorded no-hitters. For a pitcher it’s the achievement of a career.

On April 6, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dave Roberts, implemented an extraordinary—and what he knew would be an unpopular—decision. Interestingly, the decision was “made” hours before the game started.

Here is a brief summary of the events. Ross Stripling, a 26-year old pitcher for the LA Dodgers, in his first major league game, pitched a no-hitter into the 8th inning. A top-drafted rookie (read: “high potential” in business lingo), he was five outs away from completing the no-hitter, when his manager pulled him from the game.

Two years ago, Ross underwent elbow reconstruction surgery (known as Tommy John surgery). What many people didn’t know was that his manager was looking out for his long term health and success. Before the game, the coaches agreed that Ross would not throw more than 100 pitches in his first game since the surgery—no matter what.  (A pitch-count is a commonly used practice to prevent pitchers from re-injury.)  After the 100th pitch, with a historic no-hitter in sight, manager Roberts implemented his decision. Why? Roberts explained after the game that there was no way he was going to place the health and future success of the pitcher in jeopardy. He said it was a ‘no brainer’ decision.

Can you imagine the forces conspiring to tempt the manager away from his disciplined decision? The growing excitement among teammates and assistant coaches. The rare professional achievement unfolding. And let’s pile on some additional historical pressure. Any idea when the last time a rookie in their major league debut pitched a no-hitter? Bumpus Jones in 1892! How many of us—if we were the manager—could have stayed true to the pre-game commitment?

“…That You Were Later Thanked For Making.”
During and after the game reporters, fans and experts debated the decision. Adding more fuel to the second-guessing fire, the Dodgers eventually lost the game. While the game was still being played, the young pitcher told his coach that he agreed with the decision and harbored no ill will. That type of grace is admirable.

And then this happened. Here is Roberts speaking the day following the game:

“One of the cool things I experienced this morning was Ross’ dad was down in the lobby today and just sought me out and he came up to me really kind of emotional and just thanked me from him and his wife for looking out for their son. When you have a father and a mother who know their kid’s story and what he’s endured to get here, they enjoyed that moment more than anyone.”

What? Thanking the manager who pulled their son out of the game and denying him a page in history? Of course, as business leaders, we’re unlikely to receive ‘thank yous’ from relatives of our direct reports and teammates.  Perhaps the illustration of receiving thanks from those most affected by an unpopular decision can still be instructive to leaders.

Here is link to the full story if you would like to learn more about the rationale behind the decision.

What Leadership Lessons—if any—Can Leaders Take Away?
Let’s be clear: there may be no business situation equivalent to the situation faced by Dodgers’ manager Roberts. Furthermore, it may be a stretch to ask if business leaders can learn anything from Roberts’ actions. But it’s still fun to consider the possibilities.

We frequently hear that ‘managers do things right; leaders do the right thing. If that’s true, then it’s fair to conclude that effective leaders may at some point in their careers face the situation of having to make an unpopular decision based on what they believe is the ‘right thing’—in spite of what others may say in the moment. When it comes to making unpopular, challenging decisions, there are two, compelling take aways for me from the Manager-Pitcher situation:

1) Forethought, discussion and agreement about an if-then decision. i.e. “If, or when, x event occurs, then we are going to do y.”

2) The discipline to implement that decision—despite pressure to make a different decision.

1) Forethought, discussion and agreement about an if-then decision.
Identifying if-then markers before the possibility of an emotionally-charged moment. It won’t make an unpopular decision any more popular, but if the markers are based on sound reasoning, the leader will stand on firm ground when the time comes to implement the decision. Waiting until the moment is thrust upon us puts even the smartest leaders in reactive mode and subject to the whims and pressures of the moment.

Consider the more unpopular decisions you may face as a leader. Placing a direct report on a performance plan; promoting a less experienced and more capable person over someone with more experience; announcing an organization realignment; taking part of the budget dedicated to awards and recognition and investing in the development of all leaders. What type of if-then markers do you have in place that will help you stay grounded during an emotionally-charged moment?

2) The discipline to implement that decision—despite pressure to make a different decision.
Even when a leader—or leadership team—takes the time to plan and agree on what they know will be unpopular decision, implementing that decision at the moment of truth can be immensely difficult. In an interview with a business journal, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz, noted, “The thoughtful leader accepts that tough choices must sometimes be made in the short-term to ensure a successful future.”  This can be tough to put into action. My colleagues and I see this tension play-out experientially in our programs’ business simulations.

One sim, in particular, stretches participants’ discipline to forego small, tempting short-term gains for larger, more sustainable long-term gains. During the sim’s after-action-review, participants consistently tell us that in the absence a leader nudging them to achieve the more valuable, long term goal, the temptation was too great to go for the short-term, easy wins. What’s more,  those same participants end up thanking their leaders who helped them stay disciplined even though during the implementation they disagreed with the decision.

My colleagues and I actively encourage leaders to flex and adapt when new variables enter a market or competitive equation. At the same time, leaders  know how to identify those situations when resolute commitment to a well thought-through decision is the best way forward. Effectiveness is recognizing which situations call for which actions; Is this a situation that requires me to flex or is it a situation which requires me to stand fast to an earlier commitment?

Staying Grounded
We live and work in a world which frequently favors and rewards the here-and-now—the sugar rush of immediate gratification: Going for the historic no-hitter and putting long term success in jeopardy. Here’s to the courageous leaders and coaches who make thoughtful—all be them unpopular—decisions and implement them with principled discipline.

What was the most unpopular leadership decision YOU made that you were later thanked for making? What were the principles that grounded your decision?


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