Do This….When You Don’t Know What to Do

Most people, maybe all people, certainly me, experience times in their life where they don’t know what to do. That doesn’t make them weak people. That doesn’t make them dumb people. It also doesn’t make them less likely to succeed…. unless they do nothing because they don’t know what to do. 

 

Hopefully you have someone in your life that you can bounce ideas and problems off of. It could be a coach or a mentor. Possibly a close friend or family member. The importance of having someone in your life that you trust enough to share anything with cannot be overstated. If you don’t have that person or even better, people, then you need to find one. 

 

But sometimes, even with help, your next move can be hard to determine. You’re not sure what to do next. 

 

Because that’s happened to me from time to time I’ve received lots of advice on the subject. One time when I had to choose between two options and deciding seemed hopeless, one of my mentors told me to flip a coin. I said that the decision was too important for something as frivolous as flipping a coin. 

 

He told me that it wasn’t at all frivolous because when that coin was in the air I’d know exactly which way I wanted it to land. I still wanted to dismiss his suggestion but somehow I knew he was right…and he was. So I flipped the coin and said if it was heads I’d do this and if it was tails I’d do that. It came up tails and I didn’t want that so I decided that it was such a big decision I should do two-outta-three. It was then that I knew exactly which way I wanted to go. 

 

As clever as that was I still find it a little ridiculous to make a major life decision on a coin flip. So I sometimes use advice from Benjamin Franklin. 

 

When the very wise Ben Franklin was asked for advice he would tell people he couldn’t decide for them but he did share his own decision making “tool.” He advised people to take a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side of the paper he said to list the reasons for doing something and on the other side of the paper list the reasons for not doing it. 

 

Then he said, and this is the key advice, he said to NOT count the things on either side, he said to weigh them instead. Seeing the reasons on paper made them more concrete and real. You could have 12 reasons on the “do not” side verses 2 on the “do” side but if the 2 outweighed, or mattered more, than the 12, you knew your decision was to “do.” 

 

When I share how to use Ben’s tool today I let people know it’s okay to take several days to list your reasons on that paper. As you ruminate over a decision keep that paper nearby and track your reasons for and against, you’ll have your answer in relatively short order.

 

But sometimes even when using that tool the “weight” of the decision is equal and you just won’t know what to do. 

 

So do this.

 

Do the next right thing. You may not know completely what to do or what not to do but somewhere in you the knowledge of the next right thing to do exists. Doing the next right thing may not get you to where you need to be but it will get you closer. 

 

I can tell you from personal experience that doing the next right thing is a lot harder than it sounds. I’ve often convinced myself that I didn’t know the next right thing to do because I just didn’t want to do it. I wanted to do the easier thing. 

 

Right leads to success. Easy leads to…well it doesn’t lead to success, at least not real, lasting success. 


The knowledge of the next right thing to do lives inside of you. The only question is do you have the courage that is often required to do it. 

You’re Not Always Right

One of the top two or three characteristics of great leaders is excellent judgment. Their decisions are right far more often than they are wrong. Those decisions produce favorable outcomes for their organizations and their people. Not only are they right far more than they are wrong, almost all of their biggest decisions, the crucial ones, are spot on.

 

Almost.

 

No one can be right all the time. 

 

I love confidence in a leader so long as that confidence is tempered with an understanding that being right often and being right always are not the same thing. I’m guessing a little bit here because I’ve never been right so often that I’ve become overconfident in my judgment. But I’ve seen several instances where a leader has been right so often that they apparently forget what it was like to be wrong. 

 

That leads some to believe they can no longer be wrong. That’s an extraordinarily dangerous way of thinking. 

 

As a leader it is imperative that you never forget what it feels like to be wrong. When you lose that feeling it can lead to sloppy decision making. You no longer take the time required to gather the facts necessary to make good decisions. You can begin to assume too many things. You fall into the often fatal trap of thinking that your future is merely an extension of your recent past. You conclude that because “all” of your past decisions were correct that all your decisions are and will continue to be correct. 

 

You stop listening to the people who helped you make those good decisions in the past and decide to be your own counsel. That decision often leads to more wrong decisions but by this time you’re on your own. You have no one left to tell you how wrong you are. That downward spiral is difficult to stop. The good news is that it’s not impossible to stop. You must push yourself back to the basics of sound decision making and never leave that foundation again. No matter how many great decisions you make. 

 

The best leaders are confident and bold in their decision making but never to the point of assuming that they can’t be wrong. They know that they can be as wrong as anyone else. They put great effort into doing every bit of the due diligence required to supply their excellent judgment with the facts required to make great decisions. 


As it turns out one of the best ways to be sure you’re right is to at least consider the possibility that you could be wrong. Decide that you too can be wrong about most anything and you’ll be on your way to being right a whole lot more often. 

The Value of Differing Opinions

Almost every leader has “The One.” “The One” is their most trusted confidant or advisor. They are trusted above all others and play a key role in most, if not all, major decisions. 

 

That’s pretty normal since leaders are human beings and human beings are naturally closer to some people than others. Humans “click” with some people and keep them close by while distancing themselves (at least emotionally) from those that they simply don’t connect with.

 

While that’s perfectly normal that doesn’t mean it’s perfectly good. It is not!

 

It’s hard not to value the opinions of people who hold the same opinions as you. When a leader has someone who consistently agrees with them the leader feels better about their own thinking and over time values the opinion of that someone even more. 

 

But if you’re a leader you need to understand this absolute truth: if the person or people around you always agree with your thinking then it’s very likely that they are not thinking at all. You must understand that you can sometimes be wrong and that means that someone else could sometimes be right. 

 

While no leader will ever completely eliminate “The One” (nor should they) they do need to hear diverse opinions and different viewpoints in order to make as informed a decision as possible. Even if your “One” occasionally offers an opinion different than your own, a single different opinion is not enough.

 

Every person’s opinions and viewpoints are shaped by the events of their life. Their upbringing, their surroundings, their education, and their experiences all play a role in determining what they think and feel in any given situation. 

 

Now this might be a bit of an over-simplification but in general the greater the variety of opinions a leader receives the better their decision will be. 

 

The world is which business is conducted today is too diverse to consistently value one person’s opinion over all others. It greatly diminishes an organization’s potential and limits a leader’s options.

 

So, if you’re a leader who is relying too heavily on “The One” then begin today to seek out differing viewpoints from a variety of people….before it is too late. 

 

You will know it’s too late when you finally ask for input and receive mostly silence in return. You may be tempted to think that the silence means agreement but that’s a huge mistake. Silence is almost never agreement. 

 

What the silence usually means is that the people who you need to share their insights have determined there is no upside to sharing their opinion. It makes no sense to expose your thinking when you are fairly certain that your thinking will be “out-voted” by “The One.”


When votes don’t count smart people stop voting and it doesn’t take long for smart people to realize their vote doesn’t count. 

Death by Indecisiveness

I’m not sure if there is anything more useless than a leader who cannot or more likely, will not, make a decision. 

 

I know that sounds harsh but I’ve really held that belief since I was a seventeen year old High School senior. As a Senior Officer in my Military High School I had the responsibility of overseeing the small bore rifle range for a Freshman military class. 

 

One day a student’s rifle misfired and the student turned toward me looking for instructions on what to do. (We had only explained the proper procedure 1000 times) As he turned toward me the barrel of his rifle also tuned toward me and I hesitated to give direction for a split second. That was long enough for the round in the chamber to go off striking me in the foot. 

 

I was fortunate on many levels. I was wearing boots which helped and the round was only a .22 caliber, plus the 14 year old Freshman had kept the barrel of his weapon pointed toward the ground. It was a relatively minor injury and at the time I was more upset about my boot than my foot. 

 

But I was also unfortunate. I was unfortunate (in hindsite also foutunate) in that the active duty military person on the range that day was Sergeant Major Stock. To say that he was mad would be the understatement of my entire four years of High School. 

 

Funny thing was, he wasn’t mad at the kid who shot me; he was furious with me. He was furious because he said my indecision, as brief as it was, could have gotten me killed. 

 

I stood there with blood oozing out of my boot while he screamed at me about the importance of making decisions. I distinctly remember him “explaining” that even a wrong decision was better than no decision. He said that in fact a “no decision” was a decision, it was a decision to not decide and that was a sure way to lose all control over a situation. 

 

He said that even when you make a wrong decision you retain control over changing it, improving it, or fixing it. He said doing something, deciding something, was always better than doing nothing or deciding nothing. ALWAYS! I think he actually said always like a dozen times, each time a little louder than the previous. 

 

Needless to say the whole thing made quite an impression on me and I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned that day. It’s probably why I have so little patience for people who claim to be leaders and then show little ability or desire to make even small decisions.

 

Perhaps they believe they are playing it “safe” by not making a decision but in fact, they couldn’t be more wrong.

 

The inability to make a decision is as serious a flaw as a leader can have. It has killed as many careers as dishonesty, stupidity and lack of good judgment combined. 

 

I’m not suggesting that anyone make decisions on a whim. I’d highly recommend that a leader get as many facts regarding a particular situation as possible before making a decision. You may not have all the facts you would like to have but once you get all the facts that you’re going to get in a reasonable amount of time then you need to make a decision. DECIDE! It’s what leaders do. 

 

There are a lot of reasons that people in leadership positions hesitate when making decisions, the fear of making a bad decision, the fear of making someone mad or disappointing them and the fear that you just don’t know the right choice to make. I get all of that but none of those are valid reasons for delaying what needs to be done, they are merely excuses for avoiding a major responsibility of leading.

 

If you really don’t have the confidence or ability to make a decision then find a coach or mentor who can help you develop that critical skill. I know as a leader you will be required to make decisions that impact the lives of those you lead. I know that is not easy. Leading, truly leading, is not easy. 


But if you’re going to have the audacity to label yourself a leader then you have to make decisions. You simply must! Always, always, always……

Mind Your Gaps

I had the opportunity several years ago to sit in on a presentation to a group of senior leaders. The presentation was from a speaker who uses Civil War history to teach leadership lessons. 

As someone who was required to take Military History as part of my high school curriculum I can tell you that military battles offer great insights into leadership successes and failures. I was excited to hear the presentation. 

The presentation focused on The Battle of Gettysburg which began on July 1st, 1863. During the first hours of battle, Union General John Reynolds was killed while leading his troops from the front. Outnumbered, the union forces were stymied for a time and it took awhile for them to regroup.

After sharing the story of the early hours of that famous battle the presenter asked the assembled group of senior leaders whether or not General Reynolds made the right decision in leading from the front. He had exposed himself to enemy fire and left his troops without his leadership as a result.

The leadership team in the room had differing opinions as to the wisdom of General Reynolds decision. Some thought it better if he had “lead from the rear” thus protecting himself from direct conflict. They felt that he jeopardized the mission by putting himself in harms way. You could see their point considering that his death did seem to slow down the union forces for a time. 

Others thought he showed true leadership by putting himself out front. Their point was that a leader shouldn’t ask their people to do something that they as a leader were unwilling to do. They also pointed out that since the Union forces eventually won his decision was proven correct. Also a good point. 

But here’s what I truly found fascinating; most had an opinion. They had this opinion in spite of having very little actual information about how the battle unfolded. There were a lot of “gaps” in the story of the battle as presented. (I’m sure the presenter did that mostly in the interest of time)

So how did this room full of top leaders come to an opinion with so little information? How did they know if General Reynolds had made the right decision despite the “gaps” in the story?

They did what all leaders, all people actually, do when they need to make a decision without all available information….they filled in the gaps with information from their own experiences. 

As I observed these key leaders offer their opinions I knew immediately which ones would accept risk in a decision and which ones would be more cautious…perhaps too cautious to lead in difficult circumstances. 

Those who believed that Reynolds had made the right call were willing to accept some level of risk and those who thought he had made the wrong call likely were not willing to accept that same level of risk. 

If time had permitted and the presenter had filled in the gaps himself then the audience wouldn’t have needed to supplant the story with their own experiences. In that case I really would not have been able to assess their appetite for risk. 

That same scenario plays out in business all the time. Leaders and their people make decisions even when they don’t have all the information that they wish they had. They simply use information from their own life history to fill in the gaps. 

That’s why two smart people, presented with identical, if incomplete information, can reach such differing conclusions. 

As a leader it is imperative that you know you’re people well. The better you know them and especially the better you understand them, the better you’ll understand the information they use to fill in their gaps. 

It’s also vital that you understand where your own “gap filling” information comes from. 

Understanding how both you and your people mind their gaps will help you see how two very different conclusions could both seem correct. 

Now, as to General Reynolds…the only mistake we can actually confirm he made was getting himself shot. As a good military leader he knew full well that his ultimate goal was not dying for the North, his ultimate goal was making as many Confederate troops as possibly die for the South. 

In that effort he failed completely.

Decisions Decisions

If you’re a leader then you make many decisions during a year. Some are big and some not so big. But every decision changes something, assuming of course that the decision was acted on. 

I don’t often suggest taking long looks in the rear view mirror but every now and then it serves a purpose. This is the time of year for looking back. A little self-reflection can help you remember some of the lessons of the past year that you may have forgotten.

So while you’re in reflection mode ask yourself, “What decisions that I made in the last year would I like to take back?”

It’s probably not a lot of fun to rehash decisions that didn’t turn out as planned but it can be a valuable exercise. You’ll want to look at the information you used to make the decision. It’s worth noting where the information came from and if you were alone in the decision or if your team agreed with you.

You want to pay particular attention as to whether the actual decision was flawed or if the mistake was in the execution. By the way, the biggest mistake of all is making a decision and then not acting on it…just sayin’.

Reflections on past decisions should be a learning experience. It’s not an opportunity to assign blame to anyone, it’s an opportunity to learn and to avoid the same mistake in the future.

If you discover that there are too many decisions that you would make differently then you know you’ve really grown throughout the year. Your short time of self-reflection should give you the opportunity to use that growth to have an even more successful 2017. 

But remember, you have to first acknowledge a poor decision before you can possibly learn from it.

Think about that too!

 

5 Cents

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. – Mark Twain

Nobody can be right all the time but the best leaders are indeed right far more often than not. They are right more often than not because they best leaders have good judgment. The simple definition of judgment is: an opinion or decision that is based on careful thought or the act or process of forming an opinion or making a decision after careful thought.

Both of those definitions have the term “careful thought” in common. A decision based on careless thought is rarely a good decision and never as good of a decision as it could have been. 

A ball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? 

Research says that 79% of the people who just answered that question instinctively, without careful thought answered that question wrong. 

Great leaders think and they think carefully before making a decision. They consider the consequences of their decision and the consequences of those consequences. Like a chess master they think several steps ahead of most people.

Great leaders think bigger.

Most importantly they know what they don’t know. They don’t assume much if anything. They verify their facts, they have people who they can bounce ideas off of, they count on those people to tell them the truth, not just what they want to hear.

The best leaders know that they can find out about the things they don’t know. They also know that their real problems come from “knowing” things that just aren’t true.

I think most people actually have the potential to have good judgment, they appear to lack good judgment because their decisions are instinctive rather than informed. They sometimes seem to think that a quick decision is better than a delayed decision. Great leaders know that a delayed right decision will beat a quick wrong decision every single time. Every single time.

I know I’m likely to get hundreds of tweets and responses saying I should go back to school and study math because they believe the answer to my earlier question is indeed 10 cents. 

I thought about telling you why 10 cents is wrong but I’m not going to. Instead I’ll tell you this, if you’re willing to pay attention, really pay attention, then all the information you need to make good decisions and show good judgment is readily available to you. 

You only need to pay real attention, you must linger on the words on the person you’re speaking with until you truly understand what they mean. You must read every word in a sentence because words matter, if you don’t your brain will play tricks on you and make you think that $1.05 is really $1.00. 

Your judgment improves when you think bigger, listen intently and observe with both your eyes and your mind wide open. You have good judgement, the question is will you develop the skills you need to make use of it. 

When you do, you’ll know without a doubt that the ball costs a mere 5 cents.