Early in my career I was in a front line management job. I had a small team, and interacted with each of them on a daily basis. I was full of thoughts about how senior management and executives were ineffective, and how they could do their jobs better. I saw actions, experienced the results of some decision process to which I had no visibility, and passed judgment. I was convinced that the senior management team was driven by ego, turf wars, and wrong thinking, without regard to impact on the front line employees. I promised myself that if I ever rose in rank I would not be one of those types of leaders. I would care about the impact on the front line. I would consider and take input from a wide range of stakeholders. I would be more transparent about my decision process.
And then, when I actually arrived at a director-level position, I found out the hard way that all my certainty about the kind of people who are leaders was wrong. Because there I was – a person. A human being. Often tasked with making decisions that I knew others would not like at best, and at worst could have a huge negative impact on their lives. My organization paid me to do that job. To make those decisions. I had to consider the health of the organization or the team over the impact of any individual employee, to the best of my ability. I took that responsibility seriously, and I am sure I made some poor decisions. Some of those decisions were impossibly hard – such as how to achieve a mandatory 10% budget cut when the only costs in my department were people’s compensation and benefits. I tried to be transparent, to share my rationale, so that people could understand. But the reality is that decisions that look reasonable to one person can look totally crazy to someone else.
We each have our own unique perspective, influenced by so many things – our personal history, our implicit assumptions and expectations, where we sit in an organization, who we interact with. We often make the mistake of assuming that we have all the information available to us – I know I did. Here is what I learned about leaders’ decisions: no matter how much you think you have all the information to understand a decision, you probably don’t. And even if you did, you cannot know that you would make a different decision with that same information until you are actually standing in that position, with requirement to decide. People have absolutely questioned my decisions, and I totally understand why, having done the same to others. After having lived in both positions I had a deep and humbling realization that it was not my place to pass judgment on leaders as people. I could have my opinion, sure, and think that I might make a different decision. But all leaders are human beings, and it is kinder and easier on yourself to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are doing the best they can – and recognize that you might not have all the relevant information, because no one does.