Dilemma is Leadership

by Ron

There’s an old joke about a sign over a shop that says

  • High Quality
  • Fast
  • Cheap
  • Chose any two of the three

For most of the industrial age, this has been the Holy Grail. Get things out the door at the lowest possible cost and yet maintain good quality. There have been several books written on this exact theme. Inc. magazine recently ran an article titled “Why Faster, Better, Cheaper is no longer good enough.”

Most of the things written seem to be adding additional components that must now be included along with Faster, Better and Cheaper (FBC). I would like to take a slightly different slant.

If you’re focused on FBC and any of the additional components being mentioned today, you’re not a leader you’re a manager. Managers are looking for the Holy Grail believing that if we just do these things better than the competition, we’ll win. Not true. Or even if it is true the victory will be painfully short in today’s rapid pace of change.

Leaders focus on Dilemmas

Leaders don’t focus on FBC. Leaders focus on dilemmas.

di·lem·ma: a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.

Synonyms: quandary, predicament, Catch-22, vicious circle, plight, mess, muddle

You’ll notice that all the synonyms have no answer. It’s simply the choice between two equally undesirable answers. In business, it’s sometimes the choice between to desirable answers. Both alternatives are good and may even be requirements, you just don’t have the resources to do both. You’re on the horns of a dilemma.

The point of this ancient saying “horns of a dilemma” is that you’re going to get gored either way. Whichever choice you make there will be blood.

Let’s say you must make a choice between fixing a short-term problem and investing in long-term success. You just don’t have the resources to do both. You’re on the horns of a dilemma. If you chose the short-term solution the long-term results are going to gore you and vice versa.

The point of this post is to evaluate what types of decisions you and your team making? If it fits into the FBC categories, you’re managing. If you’re dealing with dilemmas, you’re trying to lead through difficult decisions.

Lead by facing the Dilemmas

If you’re not dealing with dilemmas you’re not leading. If your leadership team is not dealing with dilemmas, you’ve already lost.

Leadership Obstacles

One of the major obstacles keeping leadership teams from dealing with dilemmas is second-guessing. It’s very easy to look at the damage caused by choosing one side or the other of a dilemma and ask,

  • Why did you make this decision?
  • Who made this mistake?
  • How could you have missed the consequences?

These and other forms of second guessing don’t take into account that a choice had to be made and it was a dilemma. It’s not that the decision makers weren’t aware of the damage that would occur with either decision. It’s just that the dilemma is forgotten or misunderstood or misrepresented at some point in the future.

Leaders and Leadership teams must be dealing with dilemmas. However, it’s critically important that the decision made is recorded and understood when the resulting damage occurs.

Dealing with dilemmas is difficult.

Dealing with dilemmas is acknowledging the damage that will be done either way.

Dealing with dilemmas is leadership. Leadership is difficult. Be a good leader anyway.


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