The 3 steps to making tough decisions—bold advice from an ex-Marine officer

A leadership consultant brings his militay experience to the boardroom to guide C-suite execs on how to work through perilous challenges—and when to act.

The 3 steps to making tough decisions—bold advice from an ex-Marine officer
[Photo: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Zachary Zephir/Released ]

From the cockpit of a Marine helicopter landing at night on the pitching and rolling deck of a carrier, to the seeming quiet of a boardroom subtly coaxing a new leader toward a preferred course of action, it has become increasingly clear to me how difficult it is for leaders to make tough decisions. After some soul-searching and tapping into the experience of leaders I admire and respect, I have identified some key things that simply helped me get better at it. As a CEO, and a former U.S. Marine Corps Officer and pilot, I’ve worked with military leaders, civilian executives, and my own employees and Marines to help guide them through the challenging and sometimes even perilous waters of tough decision-making. As pilots we used to say emergency procedures were written in the blood of those that went before. I share my lessons learned in that same spirit.


Too often leaders abandon their responsibility and choose not to act on a tough decision because they don’t want to be saddled with either the decision or the outcome. They act in their own interest rather than tackling the more difficult task of doing what’s right for the organization. Nothing relieves the leader of the responsibility to make difficult decisions. Good leaders will recognize this despite all its associated challenges; they have the responsibility and obligation to exercise their authority judiciously and decisively and to make the tough calls.

Based on extensive research and experience, Jacob More points out in his course Decision Making Under Stress that in stressful times (as when making tough calls) we are not at our best when it comes to making decisions. The level of stress that we experience is obviously relative to influencing factors such as our personality, experiences, and circumstances.  More demonstrates the importance of applying definitive action steps in a well-thought-out plan to reduce Recovery Time (that period of time between the onset of anxiety and the point at which we are back to a relatively normal state). Understanding the stress of making difficult decisions and having a plan to deal with it changes everything. My experience over the past 40 years has shown me that introducing logic and rationale to these situations in the form of a plan not only helps reduce my recovery time, but also improves the decisions and the comfort level and frequency at which I am willing to make them.

Difficulty making tough calls is a mindset and a cultural phenomenon common to most organizations. Whether you are face to face or in the increasingly demanding space of virtual leadership, here are three perspectives to help you devise a plan for dealing with difficult decisions: Things to Accept, Things to Consider, and Things to Do.

Things To Accept

  • It’s an obligation: Recognize that you have a fundamental obligation to deal with and resolve hard decisions. The minute you accepted the mantle of leadership, you accepted the authority and responsibility for all decisions associated with that position.
  • You can’t hope it disappears: The issue creating your hard choice will not resolve itself. When faced with a diagnosis of cancer, a patient may choose to either fight or ignore the diagnosis and effects. Ignoring it will not make cancer disappear . . . eventually, it will grow and consume them. When leaders don’t want to be saddled with the outcome, their indecision has the same effect on an organization. It, too, can consume the organization and paralyze growth, effectiveness, innovation, and morale.
  • It takes moral courage: That’s one reason it’s called a tough choice. It’s not easy doing something that will adversely impact an individual’s career, or telling the boss something they don’t want to hear, etc. Taking all that into consideration will oftentimes require you to summon the moral courage to, as Karel Montor once said, make the “hard right, rather than the easy wrong” decision.
  • You’ll get better at it: Although there are some types of decisions that might never get easier, learning from hard experiences will make you better at making hard choices the next time around.

Things To Consider

  • What makes it tough? Consider what it is about a particular choice or decision in general that makes it so hard for you. Knowing and understanding yourself becomes a critical factor in how and why you make decisions, and why some are tougher for you than for others. Figure this out, deal with it, and learn from it!
  • Know the environment and influencing factors: Understand the environment in which the decision is being made and identify the influencing factors. Try to understand the urgency, the circumstances, the culture, and the expectations of those involved. All of these should ultimately influence your decision. You should also master navigating the organizational system in which you lead. Too often leaders use the excuse that the system is too complex or that they are too busy doing their real job to take the system on as well. The inevitable result when leaders let this happen is that the problem becomes someone else’s to deal with, ultimately impacting the entire organization.
  • You’re not the Lone Ranger: Become rapidly familiar with the capabilities and resources at your disposal. Tough choices are hard enough without compounding them by rejecting helpful options. Knowing other leaders to reach out to and when to ask for help can make all the difference in the outcome of a tough call.
  • What’s the impact? Understand how and who the decision is going to affect, both individually and organizationally. How will it affect things such as careers, achieving or falling short of organizational objectives, cost, time, systems, etc.? You must know and understand the impact that any course of action you take is going to have, or go find out what the impact of a tough decision is going to be. To better understand the impact of a particular decision, put yourself in the shoes of the affected party and try to see it from their perspective.

Things To Do

  • Don’t panic: By its very definition, a tough choice implies an increased level of difficulty, dilemma, and anxiety. The greater the anxiety, the less effective your decision-making will likely be until you start feeling normal again. The key is compressing your recovery time by recognizing that it exists, reducing the anxiety when possible, and never letting it escalate to panic.
  • Clearly identify the issue: Before acting, a good leader will pause to get clarity on the challenge that requires a decision. When you don’t clearly define the problem, you risk focusing on ancillary issues that may disguise the real problem. Be precise before you act, and it will help you gauge the real magnitude of the problem and decision you are faced with.
  • Weigh and balance: Now that you have identified and considered some key perspectives, weigh and balance all the critical factors before selecting a course of action. Timing your decision may be the most important consideration. Ask yourself if you need to make this decision right now. Don’t confuse decisiveness with making rapid decisions. Decisiveness is about knowing how much time you have and using it effectively. John Cleese, in his speech on creativity, suggests that leaders who don’t take the time they are given are being lazy by making an immediate decision simply to get it over with. Weigh and balance if a decision is required, when it is required, and then, what the decision will be.

Although all of these are relevant regardless of the circumstances, it’s worth addressing an additional consideration when leading and making decisions in today’s virtual environment. The potentially impersonal nature of virtual distancing may embolden some to make tough calls more comfortably, and they may feel like the virtual environment is actually helping them get better at it.  We cannot let that virtual separation and emboldened spirit make us callous or cavalier, particularly when difficult decisions affect people. Virtual leadership requires recognizing the difference between making the tough call because it’s a responsibility, and being a “telephone tough guy” just because the circumstances seem to permit it.  Let us never lose sight of the personal impact our decisions can have, especially when virtually distanced.

In short, be decisive, be committed, and act . . . make the tough call! Own it and be confident in it once you’ve made it. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground and make your case. Those decisions may be challenged, and sometimes you will even make the wrong decision, but don’t let that dissuade you from the things you need to accept, consider, and ultimately do in order to make tough calls when required.

As the chief executive of the Colorado-based business consultancy Shackleton Group, Ed Gillcrist relies on over 30 years of organizational development and leadership experience as well as that of a Marine officer and aviator to help organizations develop and lead more adaptable and effective teams.