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Four Guidelines to Making Critical Decisions

In recent surveys done by the Barna Group, Americans of all ages are feeling a divide. While millions of us cannot agree on many issues today—we do seem to agree on one issue: the generations are colliding. Many of the colleges and high schools we partner with have four generations on campus: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z. In my last four trips to school campuses, I encountered students, faculty, coaches and parents debating over issues such as:

  • How many hours should a student be allowed to have on a portable device?
  • Should athletes kneel during our national anthem or is it a sign of disrespect?
  • What’s an appropriate dress code for events on campus?
  • What historical statues are proper to leave standing on the campus?
  • Should students have a choice on previously mandated coursework?
  • Should parents pay for Uber rides at the beginning of a college semester, knowing their child is likely going to get drunk at parties?
  • Is it OK to let a student enter whatever restroom they want, based on the gender in which they self-identify?

Let’s face it: some of these issues don’t have easy answers. Most of us would admit we’re treading in new territory. To use the title of my new book, we are “marching off the map.” We don’t have maps to guide us in such new and different territory.

Or, do we?

Four Fundamentals That Should Govern Our Decision Making

Below, I offer you a very simple list of several guardrails that I consider when I’m making a significant leadership decision—one that will affect many people. Knowing my decision will likely not please everyone, but will affect everyone, I must make it with both integrity and resolve that enables me to sleep well at night. While we’re definitely in new territory, the following four imperatives help us to make wise decisions amidst controversial and sometimes “gray” issues.

1. See the Big Picture. (Try to perceive all viewpoints.)

Very often, students are convinced we don’t understand them, nor comprehend what they’re going through. We felt the same way when we were young. Leaders must practice meeting with all involved parties, listening and hearing their angle before making a decision. This is more difficult than it appears. It is so easy to make snap judgments without all the facts, because we’re distant from the issues. Author Brene Brown reminds us that “people are hard to hate up close.” By listening, we not only gain insight on other perspectives, we build empathy as well. Further, even if we don’t please everyone with our decision, at least they felt they were heard. I learned long ago that people do not have the innate need to get their own way. They do have the need to be heard. Seeing the big picture equips us to manage by fact, rather than feelings.

2. Take the High Road. (Work to believe the best about others.)

This is a leadership act that John Maxwell taught me when I was young and serving on his team. He always took the high road, even when others didn’t deserve it. He made a choice to believe the best about people—especially in the middle of a “gray area”—and risked outsiders misunderstanding his motives. Some felt being so “nice” meant he agreed with them; others felt he was compromising his convictions. Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s choices you must fear or hate them. The second lie is that if you love someone it means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate. Taking the high road means you treat others with respect and honor—and don’t burn bridges along the way.

3. Think Long Term. (Ponder the long-term impact of decisions.)

We must ponder the future implications of our words and actions. As I suggested earlier, we must guard against kneejerk reactions and impulsive judgments when we don’t have all the facts. We don’t do this naturally today. Society pushes consumers to think only about today’s benefits. This has led to huge credit card and student debt; mortgage foreclosures and failed relationships. But think about the benefit of this paradigm: “Pay now and play later.” Work now for a future benefit. People who do this always end up more satisfied. Tim Tassopoulos, president of Chick-fil-A, taught me long ago: the further out I can see, the better the decision I make today. Did you know there’s a man from India who started planting trees when he was 16-years-old? He’s now 52 and lives in his own forest with rhinos, tigers and elephants. That was his goal as a teen. He thought long term.

4. Choose Win / Win. (Find solutions where everyone sees a benefit.)

At times, this is extremely difficult, but it’s the only lasting perspective today. When making a decision, everyone should feel as though some improvement was made. Each party must come away feeling as if they gained value from the discourse. This means we must embrace ideas that will benefit each party. It also means we begin thinking of helping others to win, as we pursue our goals. Did you know that Japan has a network of roads that plays music as you drive over them at the correct speed? What an ingenious idea. Instead of merely penalizing speeding drivers, they reward those who stay within the speed limit. Who doesn’t like cool music? Everyone wins.

When we pursue these goals, we learn to listen and understand others’ viewpoints. We then respond with empathy, not just combative arguments. We learn to perceive what’s felt behind a remark and not merely feel consumed with our counterpoint. In fact, we begin to act, not react to others. It’s what effective leaders do.

Our Take Away

As we work with students, let’s do everything in our power to demonstrate that people can approach an issue differently, remaining civil and even empathetic toward each other. Let’s show our students what civil discourse looks like. Let’s lead the way in both compassion and conviction.


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