There are times when it doesn’t seem as if the right path will ever be clear.  Leaders have to make wonderful and terrible decisions every day, and don’t always have an obvious line drawn to the right choices.

Anyone who has managed employees (or children, for that matter) will understand that empty, hollow feeling when you realize that you have all the data you’re going to get, and the decision still doesn’t feel solid. Sometimes, all the data isn’t nearly enough.  Even a high driving, A-type personality, which is considered the one type that doesn’t need 100% of the information, can have moments when clarity escapes them.

Occasionally, this indecision happens for a really good reason. Maybe there are two perfect candidates for the job opening. After months of searching you have to decide between the two. How can you decide? Who will be the best long term employee, you wonder? Will one fit our culture better?  Is one more likely to be here longer? How do you know which one can become productive more quickly? Or maybe you have to decide about how to share an extra bonus.  Which area of the company deserves more? Is it fair to just give everyone the same amount? Does that reward performance, or mere presence? These are the fun, wonderful decisions, which still require that you carefully analyze the details and make a solid choice.

Even the best of times can leave us wishing we could see into the future and know that we are doing the right thing.  Even the fun decisions can create a butterfly effect that we cannot foresee. Will your choice be fair to all concerned? Have you thought through every impact? What are the unknowns that you should anticipate? Who among us hasn’t wished for a crystal ball?

The most difficult are those decisions which are negative. Who should be laid off first? Do we consider merit or longevity or productivity? Can our culture survive any layoffs? What about the institutional knowledge that leaves with those people? Have we documented the processes well enough to be sure we’ll be able to continue operations smoothly? Which employees who remain will suffer survivors’ guilt?  Or perhaps you need to move the office to a new location, and not everyone can come along. Are you sure you considered every possible alternative? Have you properly compensated those who will be affected by the longer commute? Sometimes, in the very best of circumstances, an employee doesn’t make it due to performance issues. You’ll struggle to be sure you’ve provided every possible alternative. You’ll ask yourself if the training was enough. Were you a good enough coach? Or is it simply poor casting?

These are the times you need a very strong lamp in your lighthouse. Sailors still use that point of reference to avoid the rocks and shoals. In this era of technology, when the lamp is made of halogen or LCDs instead of wax or oil, and the tower is made of rods of steel, and the timing is handled by computer, there is still simply a single beam of light.  For most things that are critical to our basic survival, simple remains the most effective. There is nothing new under the sun. We create new ways to handle the basics, and technology is a wonderful tool. We can use a computer to type our words instead of an old Selective or a quill pen. But the writing, and then the reading, remains the same. Our sales techniques will vary based on products and presentation tools, but the relationship that makes it possible to close the deal often still requires a real connection between two human beings.

And as leaders, we need that light to show us the way when we are trying to make hard decisions with too little time and too little information. In fact, sometimes the problem is too much information. I’ve heard it said that the New York Times newspaper today holds more information than an 18th century man ever learned in a lifetime. Perhaps all that information overwhelms us, the way a storm would for a sailor trying to find the port.

How do we find that light, though? What will be our guide? There are many coastlines, and many lights. Some need to be stronger than others.

First, we must know our own boundaries.

What line do we draw in the sand with regard to our own actions? How far are we willing to go to save the company, the job, the industry? Is there a path we would never choose? These values become your brightest light. Your values choices must be made in your own personal vacuum, without bias regarding salvaging your career or the company.  All other things being equal, with nothing on the line but your own reflection in the mirror every morning, what is your guiding principal?

For example, when hiring in a tough situation, using all the data you have, are you comfortable making that decision yourself, or do you seek the council of others? Do you need others to help with the interviews? Either is right, but which is right for you?  Or if you have to change from an old, reliable vendor, can you trust the information given to you, or is it important to you that you do the research yourself? Some would say even the lines of integrity get blurry once in awhile. Have you defined where the line blurs for you?

Second, what is the light for the company?

What parameters need to be set for consistency in leadership and the actions that leaders must take?  Defining the culture for leadership is ridiculously hard. Imagine getting all the leaders in the organization to buy in, and feel that they have been included in the creation of that culture, and then implement the concepts!  It feels like herding cats. But it can be done, and more inclusion even at this level means more buy in. Sometimes, at least part of this answer can be found in the corporate mission statement.

This corporate light has to be very strong as well, and like the lens on a lighthouse lamp, polished frequently to be effective. Consistency in the application of these guiding principles amongst leaders and managers can be lifesaving in rough times. We need our leadership values to be second nature. The right way should come naturally.  A friend of mine once said “a rising tide lifts all boats.” If all the leaders have the same guiding light, that raises the level of accomplishment across the whole company.

Our third consideration is the culture of the industry.

What should be considered about the parameters that are expected among your peers? What behavior is good? How brightly do the lights shine around your industry counterparts?

Finally, there is preparation.

The most critical point is that we must define our guiding principles as much as possible before you get into the storm. The lighthouse light is prepped and ready before the storm. Taking the time to stop, look, and think is not a luxury once the storm hits. Preparation is a necessity; time is not your enemy in this case. Take the time to work thorough these issues now, before you have to make a quick decision. Your success and survival depend upon your ability to look before you leap.

The process of working through these questions will change your insight. Every time you make a tough choice you will change a little. Going into the storm without any understanding of the light will reduce your chances, but if you start out knowing how to find that one speck of light in the darkness, and keep heading toward it, you’ll find your way.