In a world of so many competing interests, making smart decisions is harder than ever. So much so, in fact, that some leaders get stuck in the quicksand of indecision.

What they apparently don’t understand is that indecision is a decision. Putting issues “on hold” is seductive and deceptive. Problems don’t disappear. Challenges don’t mysteriously vanish. As time passes, in fact, the list of options is often the only thing that shrinks.

Navigating information and choices is among the leader’s most important responsibilities.

Eric Pliner, chief executive at YSC Consulting, a global leadership strategy firm, offers practical tools for managing complex, subjective decisions. His insightful book is Difficult Decisions: How Leaders Make the Right Call With Insight, Integrity, and Empathy.

Rodger Dean Duncan: What makes a “difficult” decision different from all the other decisions a leader makes every day?

Eric Pliner: The most difficult decisions are subjective and human. They can’t be reconciled by aggregating more data or conducting more rigorous analysis. They require the leader to make a call that will inevitably disappoint some people—maybe even lots of people—precisely because they have a personal element to them.

When I must decide whether to let the team continue to work from home, I can look at variables like productivity data. But that doesn’t tell me about the quality of an individual’s experience of working. When a leader has to choose whether to let someone have more paid time off than they’re allotted because of a family crisis, sure, there is hard data. But there are also moral dimensions, an ethical context, and the responsibilities of the leader’s role that have to be taken into consideration.

Duncan: How do you distinguish between ethics, morals, and values?

Pliner:  Values are aspirational. They convey what we ostensibly stand for, but there’s no real consequence if we don’t uphold them. Much of that is up to interpretation, anyway. Morals are the inverse. They tell us what we will absolutely not stand for, what we will not allow. They’re about right and wrong. I like to say that morals represent a firm line drawn in thick, black Sharpie. Morals are internally defined (that is, determined and upheld by the individual) and externally applied. Ethics, on the other hand, are externally defined. They are collectively determined by a group, an organization, or even a family—but we each interpret them internally. Ethics tell us what is beneficial or detrimental, helpful or harmful, better or worse, in a particular context. That context is often changing, which is why it’s important to be constantly surveying how others’ views are informing the ethical landscape.

Duncan: What role should ethics, morals, and values play in a leader’s decision-making practices?

Pliner:  Whether we know or acknowledge it or not, every leadership decision contains morals, values, and ethics—our own sense of what is right and what is wrong, our beliefs about what we stand for, and an understanding of what is beneficial or detrimental in our current context. That’s not a choice. What is a choice is to make those frameworks explicit and to use them with intent, rather than by default. Thinking about our morality, our values, and our ethical context in advance and making choices mindfully can help us make decisions with integrity.

Duncan: How can people best understand the sources of their morality, and then honestly apply that self-awareness to their decisions?

Eric Pliner

Pliner:  First, think about what you believe about right and wrong. Consider carefully—where did you get those ideas? Did you hear them from your parents or other adults in your life? Are they informed by your beliefs about faith, religion, or spirituality?  Do they come from community principles, your cultural heritage, or other aspects of your core social identities? What experiences in your life reinforced or solidified your views of what is right and what is wrong?  Whether it’s through reflective thinking or journaling, conversation with a friend or loved one, meditation or prayer, a long walk in nature, a quiet solo task that has a manual component (like showering or running or golfing or baking or shooting a basketball), engage in an activity that allows you think deeply and challenge your own ideas and assumptions.

Duncan: What’s a good exercise to help people clarify their desired moral leadership “brand” or reputation?

Pliner:  Imagine that you’re being recognized for the totality of your life. Maybe you’re envisioning your own eulogy. But if that’s too morose, imagine a lifetime achievement award. There’s only one rule: you can’t mention any of your professional accomplishments. No job titles, no company names, no stats and figures. How do you want to be described? What do you want to be known for? What have you done, who have you been, how have you behaved in your life that would support the total story of who you are and what your life has been about? Make a list of the moments, relationships, and other details that bring the story of your life to life.

Now, look over that list. What does it tell you about what you stand for and what you won’t stand for? What does it tell you about what you believe about right and wrong? About what really matters to you? The deeper your self-reflection in the abstract, the greater the likelihood that you can apply your understanding of your own morality to an unanticipated difficult decision when it inevitably arises.

Duncan: You suggest that leaders should design their desired leadership styles, interactions, and organizational culture with focused intent rather than leaving those critical human elements to default. In that regard, what best practices have you observed?

Pliner:  There’s no such thing as having time. No one ever has time to do deep self-reflection or to work in quiet or to focus on self-development. You either make the time or you don’t. The leaders and organizations that are most successful at designing leadership styles, interactions, and cultures with intent are the ones that make time to do it with focus and to revisit those designs and their application regularly.

For individual leadership, the most successful leaders carve out time every single day—take 15 minutes from social media scrolling or use a guided meditation on the treadmill or block out a meeting with yourself in your calendar. For teams, dedicate time at the beginning of a meeting to declare how you want and need to be together, or at the end of every session to reflect on how you did. And for cultures, commit to refreshed communication at least once a quarter.

Duncan: In a world of virtue signaling and cancel culture, what can leaders do to resist the temptation to “play to the crowd” in ways that violate their own sense of morality and ethics?

Pliner:  I’m not necessarily a believer in the notion of cancel culture per se. It’s a shorthand for a changing ethical context. I think the idea of someone being “cancelled” or rejected is an indication of shifts in the collective ethical context that may have once allowed particular behaviors to be considered acceptable and now considers them to be harmful or detrimental.

In terms of violating their own morality, leaders have a limited set of choices. If you’re willing to go along with something that you believe to be wrong, your morality is different than you think. (For instance, if you agree to take an action that you say is wrong because you don’t want to lose your job, then your moral priority is about maintenance of your job or your income over anything else. I have no judgment of that—it’s just helpful to note in service of clarifying your actual morality.) The leader’s second choice is to try to influence stakeholders towards a different course of action that aligns with her or his personal moral code. The third choice is to refuse to take the action, but that’s a card that most leaders get to play only once.

This is why I think it’s so important to be in touch with one’s own morality, to regularly gauge the ethical context and your role responsibilities to make sure these are as aligned as possible, and to communicate your morality to others. Then you’re less likely to feel forced to make a profound compromise or to walk away in the face of a difficult decision.

Duncan: What’s the difference between a leader’s job and a leader’s role, and why is it important for a leader to understand the difference?

Pliner:  Your job consists of the set of tasks for which you maintain accountability and responsibility. Your roles include results, but they also include the expectations of your stakeholders.

Jobs require understanding of deliverables and outcomes. Roles require understanding of what other people want, need, and expect from you—not just tangible outcomes, but also interpersonally and as a leader. Leaders need to understand the difference because your role with one set of stakeholders may have expectations that conflict directly with expectations from another set of stakeholders. Their desired results (e.g., maximize returns for investors) might be identical, but their expectations of how you get there (e.g., at all costs vs. with a priority for employee or customer care) might be pretty different. You have to understand and navigate both. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time until you’re not the leader anymore.

Duncan: You suggest using the moral code, ethical context, and role responsibility triangle when making difficult decisions. Give us an example of how that works.

Pliner:  When any two sides of the triangle come into conflict, look to the third to help you find the right way forward.

Here’s an example. Lots of leaders have been challenged by whether to require vaccinations for employees returning to the office. Maybe my personal morality—my sense of right and wrong—tells me that individuals should have bodily autonomy at all costs, and that no one else should interfere with that autonomy. But the ethical context—what is collectively helpful or harmful—indicates that we have a serious, collective public health issue that can be helped via mass vaccinations.

How do I reconcile that conflict between my morality and my ethical context? Well, I can look to the responsibilities of my role. As the leader of an organization, I am accountable to deliver results that require me to put the collective good of my business—and therefore of my employees and customers—ahead of any one individual’s beliefs. Can I come up with a solution, then, that allows me to support individual autonomy and public health at the same time? In this example, I have to—because my role responsibilities demand it.

(RDD Note: Using Pliner’s vaccination example, it is of course possible—in fact, quite common—for people with high morals, high ethics, and loyalty to their role responsibilities to come to different conclusions about “requiring” anyone to be vaccinated.) 

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan