Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Leading With No Regrets

Yesterday I had a conversation with one of my teachers who has future aspirations to become an administrator. The two of us had set some time aside for her to discuss my many roles as a principal.  During the conversation, she asked me if I regretted any of the decisions I had made.  I paused, thought about this for a minute, and responded that I did not.  This is not to say that I was happy with some of the decisions I have made during my nine years as an administrator.  It is how we react once a decision is made that truly defines one’s ability to lead. 

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I think anyone in leadership second-guesses many of the decisions that are made.  However, I am of the opinion that if we were to regret decisions we have made in the past then that will hinder our ability to make the extremely tough ones in the future.  Leadership is about making decisions that are in the best interests of all stakeholders, living with the outcomes, and learning from the resulting experiences.  By following these simple, straightforward tenets, leaders develop the capacity to be confident when decisions are made, even if the outcome is not what they anticipated.  Regret will ultimately leave a sense of doubt or hesitation when decisions need to be made. We must learn from decisions that fail, or do not live up to expectations, and use this acquired knowledge the next time.

This conversation really got me thinking. Over time I have a learned a great deal from the outcomes of decisions I have made and how I went about the process of making them.  Here are a few key points that I have identified that not only allow me to make sound decisions, but to also be at peace with the end result:
  • Communicate clearly why a decision is being made.  Making decisions that have no rhyme or reason or come out of nowhere are a recipe for disaster.  With the many ways leaders have to communicate and clearly articulate their reasons for making a decision there is no excuse not to follow through.  Decisions made without proper communication build resentment, animosity, and a desire to undermine the desired changes.
  • Elicit input from an array of stakeholders.  Sometimes decisions have to be made at the drop of a dime, but most do not.  For the big decisions that will dramatically alter school culture (i.e. grading, hiring, new policies, evaluation, etc.) it is imperative that all stakeholders be represented at the table and be allowed to offer input and/or suggestions.  Shared-decision making and consensus are two of the most important elements of effective leadership.  A committee ends up being a leader’s best friend when it comes to making these types of decisions.  This should go without saying, but students should be a part of this process every time, if appropriate.
  • Take time to research and reflect.  I have found that connecting research and pertinent examples that support why a decision will or has been made greatly assists with embracement by stakeholders.  It is also important to reflect upon the potential outcomes of the decision in order to best respond to concerns and complaints.
  • Cooler heads prevail.  Never make a decision solely based on emotions, as these tend to be the worst possible decisions a leader can ever make.  
  • Develop a circle of trust.  We all need honest feedback on decisions we are about to make.  The problem is that we might not receive this prior to each time a big decision is made.  Determine who you trust the most and who will not hesitate to push back on your ideas before making a decision.  Over time this group will evolve into one of your best assets when it comes to making the best decisions.
  • The buck stops with you.  Ultimately it is up to you as a leader to make the final decision even if you follow all of the suggestions above.  You must be confident with every decision you make.  After all, you are in this position because others cannot handle or do not want this responsibility.  
My thoughts are not meant to be a checklist for other leaders to follow, but points of emphasis when the time comes to make a decision, big or small.  Life and professional experiences teach us a great deal and in the leadership world this can be priceless.  Never regret any decision you make.  Use each as a learning experience to become better at what you do.


  1. Eric, you are on a roll! Keep the posts coming. A former mentor of mine and good friend once shared the following quote with me which I have never forgotten. "It is not how you behave when you know what to do, rather how you behave when you don't know what to do." Great post my friend. See you in June and August.

  2. Truly useful for anyone who aspires to lead. Looking forward to more insights from you.

  3. Eric,
    Great post. I do think, however it's okay to be regretful. I regret many decisions that I made as a teacher, school and district leader, but that regret has always fueled my decision making going forward. I can tell you that making decisions as a school leader that were not always in the best interest of students (due to political pressure, collective bargaining agreements, or simply following orders) were regretful from day one, but those experiences have helped shaped who am today and even the career choices I have made, including the decisions to turn down opportunities, because of the regret I feel having made those mistakes/decisions in the past. So, I'm with you fully on your thinking here, I just think its okay to be regretful. I know that I don't regret being so.

  4. Tony,

    You bring up a great point. Some decisions that might "come" from us as leaders are mandated or forced upon us from a top-down approach. Those I tend to regret as well.

  5. Thanks for sharing. I believe that any aspiring leader would find your reflection most insightful and valuable.

  6. Vikki - Thanks for being the inspiration behind this post.

  7. Great information for all leaders, not just in education. Most of my regrets or failures are what drive/motivate me to improve. Turn setbacks into comebacks!