Marcy was having professional growing pains. After months of working with a coach, it became apparent her decision-making process was more complex than she realized, while many times fraught with consternation. She was aware of her focus and drive, although she had a blind spot in understanding her influence as a leader. When reviewing Marcy’s top five values it was clear she respected relationships, collaboration, growth, and harmony. However, there was another value in the shadows that was driving the show.

That value was loyalty.

Marcy viewed her biggest decisions through the lens of loyalty – who she was being loyal to and who was being loyal to her and the company. This value of loyalty blurred her understanding of what was really happening with her team. When someone decided to retire early, because it was best for that person during that time in her life, Marcy felt abandoned since the person wasn’t being loyal to the company (or to her). As coaching around decision making continued, the loyalty filter became apparent to her. This realization made her uncomfortable. Basing her decisions on loyalty gave Marcy something or someone to blame when things didn’t go as expected.  She self-admittedly didn’t like surprises and the blame shift helped to alleviate some of the pain associated with unplanned events.

She is not alone, of course.  For almost 100 years, the Serenity Prayer has been used in churches, AA and even the military, to help generations of people learn to navigate that which is out of their control.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; taking this world as it is and not as I would have it; trusting that you will make all things rights if I surrender to your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you forever in the next. Amen” (Reinhold Niebuhr).

As a leader, is it possible to have serenity amidst the pain of making choices or living with others’ choices?  Serenity – the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled – can be a powerful salve to help soothe the process of moving through our pain. We can learn to respond in serenity rather than react to the overwhelming pain by pausing long enough to reflect, for example, on the words of the serenity prayer to disrupt the pain cycle.

Beyond Loyalty

It can be challenging to make sound decisions as a leader. Marcy had a built-in loyalty mindset that gave her a mental buffer when it came to making decisions. And she also had a perspective that was singular in focus, inaccurate, and lacking the serenity prayer framework for seeing the big picture of life, which can cause knee-jerk reactions rather than thoughtful responses.

Before this discovery, Marcy felt pretty good about her approach to leadership. She thought “they want something from me, and I want something from them”.

After this discovery of her loyalty filter or lens, Marcy had a choice about whether to be open or closed-minded on expanding her leadership lens and perspective. She couldn’t pretend she didn’t know about this loyalty bias, yet this was a familiar approach to her leadership style, pre-discovery that is.

At some level, she justified her value for loyalty. She affirmed this loyalty perspective within herself as a way for her to decipher their level of commitment from those on her team. As reasonable as that sounds, she knew it was problematic by not incorporating the big picture or various perspectives such as taking a step back with the serenity prayer. Denial allowed her to live distanced from the risks associated with narrow or one-sided decisions. Before she decided anything, she always had a black and white framework for a way out: loyalty or non-loyalty.

Pain-proofing Life

Marcy was trying to pain-proof her decisions by having a back door excuse if something did not go right or something changed in someone else’s life, which affected her. Making sound decisions, especially in response to others, can be painful; however, they are often the right ones. Moreover, the reason we can delay making important decisions is the temptation to live in the circular “what if?” or the “what now?” of those choices. If she chose option A, she may have pain. If she chose option B, she may have pain. And round and round the mountain you go.

What would Marcy do if the fear of pain associated with her decisions did not overrun her? How does she exit this merry-go-round of painful responses in decision-making? Perhaps she could give up her loyalty safety net thinking and move from a place of trust, confidence, and serenity. Initially, it might feel very awkward and difficult to lead from this new place. However, by practicing this contrary action of leading from a clearer understanding of what was in and out of her control, she exercises a new muscle, getting stronger at living and leading in the truth. Admitting that choices are hard may suddenly make them a bit easier. Greg McKeown writes in his Essentialism book chapter 3 that

By definition, they involve saying no to something or several somethings, and that can feel like a loss. The non-essentialist says “I have to” and forfeits the right to choose. Whereas the essentialist says “I choose to” and exercise and celebrates the power of choice. In fact, the ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away – it can only be forgotten (p 38-39)

Choice

Everyone has free will as part of our inherent human nature. With this freedom comes responsibility, which can be rather unnerving at times. Have you ever felt paralyzed when making a particular decision with weighty consequences no matter which way you go? We can choose our steps, to be sure.  However, the outcome is out of our hands, especially because others make choices as well.  Below are a few questions to help a leader be honest while navigating the pain associated with a decision:

  • How do you know you are making the right decision while solving the right problem?
  • Will you measure a successful decision based on changed actions or impact?
  • How will you account for anything that may go wrong?
  • What will determine the timing of your decision to be made at this time or is it something that can wait until later?
  • If something fails or goes wrong, who is responsible for this problem?

The truth is, that God gives us the gift of choice. In almost every moment and every circumstance, you have a choice, whether that be internal or external in nature. It may be a choice to forgive, or a choice to extend grace. It may be a choice to grieve or to wait. The choice is powerful. Some may have us believe that we are victims of our circumstances and defined by what happens to us. This victim outlook can render one powerless while feeling inadequate, unwise, and incompetent. Let’s consider the opposite as true. We have agency; mental, and spiritual fortitude to choose from. That truth is empowering.

Going forward, Marcy has a choice about how she will lead, and how she will think about leadership. Is it true that if an employee makes a life-balance choice to leave her company, they are not loyal to her? She realizes now that it’s not true. For her, this more respectful way of thinking is brand new, but she finds liberating in some ways.  March is recognizing that she has a choice when responding to others decisions or making her own decisions.

What Drives Your Choices?

What may be a hidden driver in the choices you make? Is it possible that fear of pain or discomfort is causing you to procrastinate or become impulsive in your decision-making process?  The story you tell – and the committee in your head reinforces – impacts the way you make choices or respond to others.  The good news is that serenity can happen regardless of the pain associated with your decisions if time is taken to define the choices in front of you.

As a leader, the more honest and in touch you can be about what influences your choices, the better you will become at making sound decisions. Notice I didn’t say perfect decisions. While a decision may be sound, it may not be perfect.

The principle is to know that God gives us free will; we are not robots. We have a choice even if we forget that we have a choice. Having a choice is moving from a posture of fearing pain to a position of love and grace leading to serenity. And, making decisions from a position of love and grace are not helpless, or “victim decisions,” but rather they can be eternal and powerful. God’s faithfulness can give us added courage to continue in this new way of decision-making, knowing that He is for us and not against us, holding our hand along the way.  In addition to the gift of choice, we’ve been given the promise found in Romans 8:28.

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28

We can develop a sound mind and sound thinking about the choices we make because we have a sound promise in Him.

What’s the Invitation?

Choose to make choices that are grounded in truth…and from a place of being loved by God!

For a long time, Marcy made choices based on the fear of loss or pain. Now she knows more fully the scope of choices she has for various perspectives. McKeown also writes:

Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture. By training yourself to look for “the lead” you will suddenly find yourself able to see what you have missed. You will be able to do more than simply see the dots of each day: you’ll also connect them to see the trends. Instead of just reacting to the facts, you’ll be able to focus on the larger issues that really matter (Essentialism, p 75-76).

She has a choice…and she has the love and grace of God to help her experience serenity through it all.

Choices are powerful. You are powerful as you make them. While being fully aware of the grace that abounds in Him, you can more clearly see the possible outcomes from your choices, although the outcomes from your decisions cannot be predicted; only surrendered.

Marcy is growing. While she didn’t make an instant shift from making decisions or drawing conclusions through the lens of loyalty, she did make a conscious choice to grow and embrace serenity rather than fear. What opportunities do you have for consciously defining choices that would better inform your decisions?

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