Leadership Essentials: 5 Proven Ways to Make Tough Calls in Aviation

Author By Steve Brechter

Leaders make decisions every day. It’s an essential part of the job. But as a leader, have you noticed that some decisions are harder to make and to communicate than others?

The late General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., who served as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Central Command, leading all coalition forces in the Gulf War, once said, “The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

Why is that? What is it so hard to make tough calls? Is there anything you can do to make them easier?

What’s a Tough Call?

By definition, a “tough call” is “a choice or judgment that is difficult to make, especially one involving only two alternatives.”

Tough calls usually involve delivering bad news or a course of action that you know will not be accepted or “go down” very well with your people.

There can be potentially serious consequences associated with making them. (More on that later).

Human nature is such that we all want to be liked. We usually “run for the hills” and avoid anything that causes us not to be liked.

But as a leader, chances are you will have to make as many (if not more) calls that are not well received as ones that are.

Here are 5 Proven Ways to Make Tough Calls

1.  Stay on Message

This tenet presupposes that you have considered all possible courses of action prior to making a tough call.  It assumes that you’ve actively engaged those two critical leadership devices on each side of your head and have truly listened to all viewpoints.

If you haven’t, stop reading. Go back and make sure you clearly understand all sides of the issue.

Given that you have done so and know that you will have to make the call, the first step to success is to be very clear in your message.

One of the reasons that leaders often have trouble communicating bad news is that they’ve not taken the time to clearly define and articulate their position in an honest and forthright way.

In his book The Trust Edge, author David Horsager states: “Clarity starts with honesty. People trust the clear and distrust the vague. Communicate clearly and frequently.”

Bad news always goes down easier if you’re genuine, authentic and have a crystal-clear message.

Make sure you state your position clearly and in complete honesty. Although the decision may not be well-received, you may be surprised hear “thanks for your honesty”in return.


2.  Believe in Yourself

Life is full of conflicting signals. In today’s digital world, we’re bombarded with messaging “for and against” just about everything. We have to be careful of the source from which we receive our“news,” for fear that it will be biased even in its reporting.

In such times, it can be difficult to sort through all the noise and achieve clarity on anything.

So how do you filter through all the static and be able to think through an issue clearly? After you’ve listened to all viewpoints, shut the world out. Find a quiet space to think.

If you’re like me, your “gut” tells you what you need to do long before any external validation is required. You already know the call you have to make

But if validation is necessary, achieve clarity in your messaging by performing a “force field analysis” to sort through the pros and cons of the issue. If anything, it will validate your intuition and help sharpen your communication.

Listen to and act upon your “inner voice.” It will rarely be wrong.


3.  Don’t Wait

A wise sage once said, “the only thing that gets better with age is fine red wine.” As a wine lover, I can vouch for that!

But one thing that never gets better with age is bad news. The longer you delay in making the tough call, the harder it’s going to be.

Why is that? It’s because people talk, they text and they instant message. And nine times out of ten, they probably know something’s coming anyway.

So the longer you withhold it, the more onerous the issue becomes in people’s minds.

In the aviation environment, withholding a tough call can cause distraction, and distraction always raises operational risk.

A pilot’s mind can be distracted from a checklist and a maintenance technician’s mind distracted from a critical inspection.

So don’t delay. Make the call, get through it and get to the other side.

The best way to the other side of a tough call is not through the back door. It’s not around the side, either. The only door to take in life is the front door.


4.  You Owe it to Them

Many leaders erroneously think that their people “will like them better” if they only give good news. They therefore live in a world of disingenuous platitudes and avoiding making the tough calls. This results in disbelief and a lack of trust.

Not making the tough calls creates a world of suspicion that will drive people underground. Anarchy and subversive behavior always results. Too many good leaders become ineffective because they avoid conflict.

My experience in life and in leadership has taught me that the inverse is true. A leader is always more respected for telling it like it is.

So if you’re a believer in the power of people and a champion for their development, you owe it to them to be blatantly honest.

If you don’t, what will be the basis of their coaching and how will you truly help them achieve high and higher levels of success?


5.  Don’t Look for Validation

Sometimes the best is saved for last, and that’s the case here.

Often, when communicating a tough issue, a leader will look for any shred of agreement in the other party. That could include tone of voice, body language or any number of other signals.

To get that agreement, they will begin to water down the message until they hear something back that the other person likes or agrees with.

They will then feel better, but in doing so,they will likely have just diluted the message into a state of marshmallow fluff.

What’s more, they will have violated Tenet No.1 (gotten off-message); Tenet No. 2 (doubted themselves); Tenet No. 3 (probably waited too long to get the bad news out); and No. 4 (not really helped people succeed).

If you want more insight on this, checkout the“Esteem” score in The Birkman™ Method. If left unchecked, a raging “Esteem Need”can ruin a leader’s credibility.

With the right insight and coaching, “building range” around a high Esteem Need can make you among the most admired leaders in business aviation.


Your Turn

What have you done to equip yourself to make the tough calls? What have been the results? We invite you to share what has (and has not) worked in the comments below, and we’ll be happy to share the results in future blogs.