Leadership Decision-Making: The Right Thing Vs. The Wise Thing

This article was originally published by Forbes here

As I’ve gotten older, I’m faced with fewer decisions that have clear-cut answers. Part of being a leader is that more difficult questions come to you, and those questions typically involve a lot of gray areas. The hard decisions are rarely those between good and bad or right and wrong, but between good and better or bad and worse.

Your moral code will help guide you through many dilemmas. To handle the more complex issues, you don’t need to know what is right, but what is wise.

Wisdom isn’t a word you hear very often in business. But I am convinced that to navigate our quickly changing times, business leaders are in desperate need of it.

I love to hike and camp. The mountains of North Georgia are a short drive from my house, so I can be on the trails in no time. Ever since my kids have been strong enough to carry a backpack, I have taken them along, often for quality one-on-one time. When my oldest son was 10, I took him on a hike that would take us to part of the Appalachian Trail. There was an early season extreme cold front coming and we got a late start on the trail, but I knew that if we kept a good pace, we would make it with enough daylight left to set up camp and build the fire we would need in the cold.

Then we got lost.

I realized we had gotten off course just as the sun began to set; the temperature was dropping quickly. I had a decision to make.

We could backtrack and try to find the correct trail. We would risk staying lost and would certainly get to camp in the dark.

We could attempt a more direct off-trail route to the camp using our navigation skills. This might get us to camp before dusk, but we didn’t know how rough the terrain would be. Thick vegetation and slippery leaves might slow us down considerably — or worse, lead to an accident.

The third option was to follow the trail back to the truck. We would be guaranteed a meal and a warm bed at home.

Asking, “What is the right thing to do?” was not helpful. Instead, I needed to figure out the wise thing.

My definition of wisdom is, “the discernment to determine the best methods to achieve the best objectives.” It takes wisdom to know what is worth pursuing and how to get it.

Wisdom necessarily implies long-term thinking. Chances are, if you’ve seen someone make a decision that sounded good at the moment but knew they would regret it later, you wouldn’t have thought, “that person is really wise.”

One of my favorite questions to ask myself when faced with a big decision is, “In 10 years from now, what will I wish I had done?”

Think of your future self looking back on a decision. What occurred as a result? This question forces you to think about long-term consequences, how you hope to exist in the future and how this decision will impact that existence.

On that hike, I needed to be discerning about which route to take. I considered past experiences. I knew that hiking in the dark was hard; I’d done it before. It is easy to get lost. I have spent time outdoors in single-digit temperatures. Your mind can slow down, leading to bad decisions. I realized that, as an experienced hiker, I could probably overcome these obstacles, but a tired, cold 10-year-old boy would probably struggle quickly.

However, the insights I had from experience also told me that if the worst came, and we were lost in the woods as the severe cold crept in, we would be okay. We had the gear to survive. Even if we couldn’t cook our food, cold rations would sustain us until morning when we could more easily find our way. We could connect our sleeping bags and even use our combined body heat to survive the night.

So, what were my future hopes and dreams in relation to this situation? What values informed my definition of success for this trip?

It was a given that I would not do anything that created an unacceptable level of risk of physical harm to my child. I also value the precious one-on-one time that we get, so abandoning the trip was unappealing.

But more than anything, I considered why I take my kids on backpacking trips to begin with. Certainly, it’s about appreciating nature and building skills of self-reliance. But mostly, it’s about facing adversity. Backpacking trips are adventures that build confidence, as you must be a good problem solver when things inevitably go wrong. This value is what most drove my definition of success for the trip.

You may not like camping, but my guess is that this story resembles many decisions that you are faced with. Not decisions of right and wrong, but decisions in which some of your values seem to conflict and you are unsure about the best path to take. The more responsibility you have, the more people you lead, the more resources you oversee, the more complex and the less clear these decisions become. It is for these times we need wisdom.

So, what did I do that evening in the woods? Well, I decided that taking a shortcut over a ridge would be longer than the direct route but less risky. If it didn’t work, we had a good chance of at least finding the trail before dark so we could bed down and find our way in the morning. It was a good choice, as we rolled into camp at dusk with just enough light to find some firewood and get our fire going before the temperature got too cold. We had a late dinner and set up our tent in the dark, warm and full when we went to bed.

Years later, that trip remains one of our best memories.

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