The most overlooked critical skill to ensure lasting leadership

As a leader, you can do a million things correctly to win the respect of your team. But if you fail to do what is right, even when it’s incredibly difficult, it can cost you that respect. It’s more popular to discuss and encourage the positive characteristics of leadership. We don’t often want to focus on the tough choices that leaders must make.

As a career and professional development coach, I’ve seen that one of the most overlooked critical skills to ensure lasting leadership is making hard decisions with grace and professionalism. There are tons of positive aspects to being a leader: supporting teams, nurturing growth, coaching others through critical thinking, motivating teams toward a goal and so much more. On the flip side, there is a deep accountability that comes with leadership, and that accountability often comes with making hard choices.

Handling toxic team members

You do not always get to pick your team. Perhaps you inherited your department or you rose through the ranks. Regardless, effective team leadership demands you to handle toxic situations quickly, succinctly and thoroughly. Once you realize you have a toxic team environment on your hands, time is of the essence. Rarely do these types of issues resolve themselves.

  1. Scope the problem. Understanding the facts will be critical to making a decision that is best for the team. Interview team members individually to evaluate their perspective impartially.
  2. Be candid. Encourage your team to openly discuss the situation with you. If you have demonstrated leadership excellence, this shouldn’t be an issue. However, situations like this are not comfortable for many people. Establish a blameless environment for effective discovery.
  3. Be impartial. Set aside your natural bias and individual preferences in order to come to a factual understanding of the current state. Your partiality can color your decisions. It is very common for toxic team members to be on their best behavior with you while acting poorly toward everyone else.
  4. Be thorough. Invest the energy to understand the situation from various angles. Discuss the situation with your upper management as applicable (and allowable). You may want to evaluate complex circumstances with a human resources representative.
  5. Be open. Be open to being surprised, being wrong or even pursuing a line of inquiry that doesn’t make sense to you at first. The more information you have, the better your resulting decision will be.
  6. Establish a plan. Once you have arrived at the root cause, help the team member to arrive at an improvement or resolution plan. Instead of telling, ask what the team member feels is the best way forward. Guide them as needed. People are more accountable to plans they helped derive.
  7. Follow up. Often you will see progress almost immediately. Later on, the team member might lose focus or slip back into old habits. It takes longer than you think to establish a new routine. Hold people accountable, and follow up regularly.


Tough decisions make great leaders

The ability to follow through on a logical plan and make tough decisions defines leadership excellence. If you struggle to confront others about behavioral challenges or performance issues it will hurt your credibility as a leader and as a competent professional. Not every decision you make will be a popular one. In my experience, doing what is easy is rarely equal to doing what is right and making the best decisions for the health of your team.