Navigating Difficult Decisions...Making the Tough Call

The grit of a leader is defined by their ability to make the tough call.

King Saul faced an army of Philistines in front of him with his army behind him “quaking with fear”. They were hiding in caves, thickets, and rocks (1 Samuel 13:5-7). He was waiting for the prophet Samuel to come give guidance and prepare the offering to the Lord. The threat seemed eminent and his army was beginning scatter. He waited 7 days then the pressure was too great. In his moment of panic and compulsion he administered the priestly work of the burnt offering.

Samuel comes into the camp, as the embers are burning low, to see the King consumed with fear and desperate for the Lord’s favor. Saul took matters into his own hands. Overwhelmed with fear of the threat of defeat and disapproval of his men. Such an act of disobedience revealed the heart and character of the king. Saul did the right thing but in the wrong way. Samuel would say “you acted foolishly.” His action cost him the kingdom (13:13-15).

No leader wants to be the fool. Rather most leaders desire to act in wisdom. Yet the pressures of real life circumstance can take the wisest of leaders make them the fool. Let us not be the latter.

How do leaders make critical decisions based on unclear, uncertain, and imperfect criteria, information, and people? Consider how you’ve been impacted by both wise and unwise decision from your leaders.

It’s even greater when you consider how many decisions you have made over a lifetime both in wisdom and in other ways.

What’s a story of how you were impacted by an employer’s unwise decision?

For our segment today, we'll be talking about the leader's discipline of making the tough call and navigating difficult decisions. The context of this segment comes from a series of coaching conversations with leaders navigating some very difficult decisions.  We’ll focus on one in particular.

A few weeks ago, I went on a hike with John, who's an international leader on the executive team at a major Christian nonprofit. John provides leadership and oversight for two-thirds of the organization’s 3,000 team members.                   

Recently, their local newspaper reported that they would be laying off some of its staff. It was a setback that led to some confusion, because the organization had a track record of consistent growth. When I talked with John about the leadership decisions that were required, that ultimately led to the layoffs, he shared with me that the shifts in the value of the U.S. dollar had diminished the value of a significant portion of their donations, much of which came from foreign currencies. When you look at their overall revenues as an organization, the international portion represents a significant amount of money.

The net result was a significant impact on the overall budget that could not be foreseen. While people were continuing to give as they had before, the value of their giving had been impacted by the value of their currencies against the US dollar. What was the leadership team to do?

The challenge of management is always striking a delicate balance between resources and mission. Leading through a time of diminished resources brought a number of tensions to the fore. Were they going to take across the board cuts against established budgets? Should they slow down the critical work of their mission by taking on fewer targeted beneficiaries? Would they take from reserves set aside for times of crisis? Should they reduce support staff which would surely impact the work going on in the field?

They ultimately decided to evaluate systems, processes, and people that were underperforming and impacting the performance of the rest of the organization. Perhaps this was an opportunity to, not only reduce costs, but at the same time improve their overall performance as an organization. In hindsight several months later, the difficult decision of eliminating some staff positions, addressing some performance and cultural behavior challenges, combined with completing a process review across the board ultimately led to an organization wide improvement of overall efficiencies and health. There is no assurance of timing for another currency valuation cycle so long term measures needed to be implemented rather than tweaking here and there to institute temporary fixes to just get us through the next few months.

What had the potential to create an apathy within the organization, in fact, energized both the leadership team and the organization helping them to develop healthier culture and behavior patterns. The communication and execution of that transformation could be the topic of additional case studies, but for today, let’s deal with the issues of identifying and dealing with issues that threaten the life of those organizations we are charged with leading.


As a leader, what are the disciplines that help you navigate difficult decisions? How do you make the tough call in the midst of uncertainty?


Given the facts that you have, if you were in the position of John and his compatriots on the leadership team, how would you have navigated such a difficult decision?