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What Managers Can Learn From the Penn State Scandal

The decision of Penn State's President Rodney Erickson this weekend to remove the statue of legendary football coach Joe Paterno is one that is destined for eternal scrutiny. Should it have been done differently? Should it have been done at all? Should there have been more notice? Or was a last-minute call and immediate action the only way to handle such a sensitive subject?

Joe Paterno
Photo: Getty Images
Joe Paterno

I have no idea. And I'm glad I wasn't the one making the decision. It's one of those dilemmas with no clear course of action or obvious right choice.

It's not unlike the many decisions bosses and business owners have to make every day. How do you make the best of a situation that has no good solution? How do you choose which of your employees to let go or how to cut a budget that's already lean?

The problem is that there are often no good answers. Instead, only the lesser of many evils.

But that's why you make the big bucks, right? Making tough decisions is part of the job description. That doesn't make it a whole lot easier, though.

When it's time to make a difficult decision, true leaders emerge. Instead, it's leadership skills, not experience or education that determine who makes the best manager or the best boss.

The best leaders, of course, are those who can both make the tough decisions and, at the same time, inspire his or her followers to support the idea. It's a combination of skills that is rare indeed.

No matter what level boss your are – with just a few employees or a whole company looking to you for direction – there are things you should consider before making your next tough decision.

Damned if you do. If you're in a situation where you'll be making someone unhappy no matter what you do, then consider it a freedom of sorts. If you can't make everyone happy anyway, then focus on doing what's right or most effective. It just makes things easier if you're not trying to please people.

Get to the kernel of the problem. Often, big decisions are muddled by all sorts of related issues and consequences that don't really directly relate to the problem. Before you make a difficult decision, take the time to strip the problem down to its core and figure out exactly what the issue is. That will make things much easier.

Get help. It's tempting to make decisions alone because it's easier than having to weigh everyone else's opinion. But, in fact, you may be missing key pieces of information that you need to make a good call. Good leaders aren't afraid to ask for help. Your employees will respect you more, too, if they feel they've been heard.

Be clear. Before you tell anyone what your decision is, make sure you've thought it through carefully. That way, when they start slinging questions your way, you'll be ready to answer.

Communicate. Whatever you decide to do in your particular difficult situation, make sure you deliver the message clearly. Even the most carefully thought out decisions can be lost in translation when you don't communicate them thoughtfully.

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