How do you lead decisively when you just don’t know what’s coming next?
You don’t know what you don’t know, and even what you DO know you know, could change.
In a recent conversation, “Joe,” a senior leader in the assisted living industry, recounted his first days of the COVID crisis in what turned out to be an early hotspot.
In those first few days we had so little information about this virus or how it spread and no guidance on what to do next. The only thing we knew for certain is that our residents were the definition of vulnerable—so I told my staff ,”Close the doors. No more visitors. Period.”
“But the families will be angry,” my staff warned. “Yes, they will—our primary mission is resident safety, I repeat close the doors.”
“But, what about …” (insert all the reasons why a bold, decisive move like this will be unpopular. “I hear you. Close the doors.”
He shared, “I’m certain that early decision saved lives.”
A courageous culture needs clarity. Knowing your values. Understanding what’s at stake and being willing to lead decisively with the information you have at the time.
And, staying curious and open while the situation evolves and be open to ideas of what must happen next.
5 Ways to Lead Decisively When You Don’t Know
When leading during times of uncertainty and change, it’s easy to feel like you don’t know anything. But you do. Start there.
1. Ground yourself in your values.
The most decisive leaders we know have a clear set of values that guide their decision making. The wafflers are the ones who are more focused on optics or popularity than doing what is right.
2. Stay focused on what matters most.
Joe could act decisively because he knew saving lives trumped satisfaction ratings or anything else. Of course, he cared about his residents and their families. He understands the importance of quality of life and the need for human connection. All that matters, a lot.
And in this moment, saving lives came first. In a time of crisis, being laser-focused on what matters is key when you have to make a quick, tough call.
3. Make the best, next, small, bold decision.
You don’t have to make all the moves to act decisively. Your equivalent of “shutting the door” doesn’t have to be for a month. But, 48 hours can buy some time to get more information. You can tell your team, “I don’t have all the answers. And our direction may change. But for today, this is what we’re going to do.”
4. Show up with confident humility.
We were talking with “Jane,” another healthcare leader who had been given an enormous responsibility for operational safety during the early COVID preparation.
I was given a yellow vest to wear which meant that if there was a tough decision to make, it was up to me to make the final call. Sometimes this meant I was being asked to make decisions in departments where I was not the functional expert. I had to show up confident, people needed to see that in their leader—but also incredibly humble, to ask a lot of questions of the right people and to really listen to their point of view, including watching the looks on their faces while I weighed options. And then take that information in to make the best rationale call.
5. Prepare for the pivot.
We’re all living in a world where the news could change tomorrow. Leading decisively at a time like this also means being willing to remain detached from the decision and be ready to pivot when new information comes along. It’s okay to say, “Yesterday I said we were going to do this ___ and that made sense with what we knew at the time. And now we also know ____. So here’s what we’re going to do now and why.”
“Let’s wait and see” is also an appropriate answer when you just don’t know. Some decisions don’t need to be made right now. Deciding when to decide is also a decision worth making.