Be Up Front, In Front

As a leader, your main job is to make decisions. There are plenty of other things you do that help your employees do their job, but the bottom line is, you need to make the decisions that take your organization in a particular direction and turn opportunities into realities. I like to say that sometimes the best way to lead is to get out of the way, and I think that is true, but you still need to find the right path down which your employees should go and push them from behind even if you are not holding their hands and guiding from the front.

One of the most important things you can do to help your employees be successful is give them clear, accurate guidance early on. Provide them all the facts and and be honest about the reality at the start of something instead of letting them wander down a path under one set of assumptions and then changing the rules on them.

This is especially important when your employees are trying to come up with new ideas. They are trying to think outside the box (or at least, think inside a bigger box) and even though you want to encourage creativity and innovation, sometimes you need to rein them in a bit. There are often limits on what you can do — such as deadlines, resource constraints, skill deficiencies, and other things — that make a good idea impractical or impossible.

We may think we are limiting their creativity if we remind employees of these limits, but the truth is, those limits exist whether we want them to or not. They are going to have an effect, and we need to decide how far we want our employees to go before they crash into the wall of reality. By figuring out early what is not possible and communicating that, you can move your employees toward what IS possible, and increase their chances of success. If, on the other hand, you keep some facts from them and let them do what they want without guidance (or with inaccurate guidance) they are going to waste time before they realize that what they are working on is not going to work, and there is a good chance they will resent you for it.

Remember, too, that if you are willing to identify your limits and make decisions within those limits, you can then decide if the results are good enough, or if you need to try to change those limits in the future. If you are not honest with yourself early on, if you are not willing to make the decisions that restrict what plans your employees pursue, you will never address those limitations and you will always be stuck with them.

I had some personal experience with this. Years ago, when I was working in the US government, We had an international partner ask us for help with a problem, and my team came up with three options for helping them out. Plans A and B involved other US government organizations, while Plan C involved resources just from my office. Our leadership approved of all three plans at first. During the next week, as our attempts to work with other organizations faced resistance, it looked like Plan C was going to have to be the one. On Wednesday, our leaders approved Plan C as an option if we needed it; on Thursday, when we told them that was the answer we needed to go with, we were told “we do not have the money to support that.” Now, had they told us that upfront we would have created a different Plan C, and we might have successfully fixed the problem. As it turned out, the problem went unsolved, and we looked pretty bad as a result. Sadly, because our bosses were not willing to make a decision when we first discussed the various options, we wasted time on a solution that never would have worked and gave up the chance to possibly develop another one that would.

Here is the hard truth: if you are not prepared to make decisions, you have no business being a leader. And if you feel like you cannot be open and honest with your employees when they start going down an unrealistic path, you are going to see a lot of failure in your firm. And nobody wants that. Well, except for your competition

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