The Choices We Make
It's not always easy
“The measure of choosing well, is, whether a man likes and finds good in what he has chosen.” — Charles Lamb, 1833
I had to make a difficult decision this week.
Every January, the Baker Street Irregulars holds its annual dinner in New York City, bookended by a couple of days before and after, consisting of get-togethers, informal dinners, lunches, receptions, and the like.
I’ve been attending these annual festivities nearly without interruption since 1996. Last year, as the world was still off-kilter, the meeting was held virtually for the first time. And in October, we lost the leader who transformed the organization over 23 years.
Reconvening after two years and commiserating over the loss of dear friends was called for, if only as a salve for similarly affected souls.
But, it was not to be.
My son is a senior in high school and plays goalie for the varsity hockey team. His team has a tournament this weekend (something that had already caused me to truncate my usual 4-day trip to New York).
But his team had a Covid scare last week, and after seeing the rising numbers around the country and knowing the festivities would include gathering indoors with many people, I made the decision to scuttle the travel plans entirely.
Not an easy decision, but there will be other BSI Weekends (although I may never see some of those friends again, due to age). My son will never have another senior year in high school and a starting position in this particular tournament.
I Would Prefer Not To
When faced with clerical tasks in his new job as a scrivener at a law firm, Herman Melville’s character Bartleby at first takes them on without complaint in “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
But by his third day, when the lawyer asked him to proofread a document, Bartleby replied, “I would prefer not to.”
Over and over, when he was requested to perform a task in line with his job, he summarily refused. The lawyer tried to rid himself of Bartleby and approached it in the most ethical way, but he felt sorry for the scrivener and let him continue in his job.
Eventually, the lawyer moved his practice elsewhere, but Bartleby remained behind. The befuddled landlord didn’t know what to do with him, so he had the police remove Bartleby. Once in prison, Bartleby refused food and eventually starved to death.
All because he preferred not to do what was asked of him.
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We all face difficult decisions. And sometimes, the right decision is hard to make because it’s lonely. Peer pressure works like that.
While leadership is a team sport, there are decisions leaders make that are isolating. Without a doubt, leaders get input from their team as they prepare for the decisions, but there are times when all heads turn toward the boss’s seat at the table and look for an answer.
Perhaps it’s the decision to lay off a large group of employees. This is never an easy task, with so many lives and livelihoods at stake. Or the choice to return to the office when the pandemic is hasn’t finished running its course. No one knows for certain where things are headed.
But we reach certain milestones and we need to determine our direction moving forward.
Last January, the United States reached a milestone when some Americans tried to stop the democratic process from playing out. And today, a year later, there are political leaders who are making their choice on which side of democracy they stand.
No one wants to make decisions that will cause them to be unpopular.
Many leaders will be faced with choices that place them at the center of an ethical conundrum. Doing what’s right may negatively affect the bottom line or relationships. One would hope that it positively reflects on reputation.
But at that moment, the decision is no longer about you as an individual; everyone who looks up to you as a leader is counting on you.
Leadership means knowing yourself, your values, and the values of the institution you lead. So that when it’s time to make a decision, you don’t waver.
Even if your first thought is, “I would prefer not to.”
“Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
It’s always a good time to reread Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which is fundamentally about making choices. The next time you read it, look at it carefully. (Poetry Foundation)
Here’s our follow-up piece that looks at it a little more critically:
We could all use a little more wisdom. That’s a sentiment that could be uttered in any decade of any century in any country. (Elemental)
“Decide not rashly. The decision madeCan never be recalled.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1875
The ethical life means being good to ourselves, to others, and to the world. But how do you choose if these demands compete? How to choose the right right thing to do. (Aeon)
What to do when you’re strugglingwith being Covid-positive, asymptomatic, and confused by quarantine requirements. (Donald G. McNeil, Jr.)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“Ever notice that “what the hell” is always the right decision to make?” — Terry Johnson, 1982
🎧 An abundance of choices is a good thing, right? In the United States, where choice is often equated with freedom and control, the answer tends to be a resounding 'yes.' But researchers say the relationship between choice and happiness isn't always so clear-cut. In “The Choices We Make” on Hidden Brain, psychologist Sheena Iyengar talks about making better decisions, and how she's thinking about the relationship between choices and control during the coronavirus pandemic.
📚 You make decisions every day--from prioritizing your to-do list to choosing which long-term innovation projects to pursue. But most decisions don't have a clear-cut answer, and assessing the alternatives and the risks involved can be overwhelming. You need a smarter approach to making the best choice possible. The HBR Guide to Making Better Decisions provides practical tips and advice to help you generate more creative ideas, evaluate your alternatives fairly, and make the final call with confidence.
Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s the latest episode of Timeless Leadership, featuring a discussion with Darden School professor R. Edward Freeman on seven models of leadership, as seen through Plato’s work:
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.