Things were unraveling fast. Insanity had gripped the country. Every way he turned was blocked. All options were bad, and the cavalry was not coming over the hill. The country was on a sure path to war. If President Lincoln placates the South, he looses Northern support. If he embraces Northern sentiments, the South walks!

If it’s true that leadership is lonely, this was the ultimate in solitary decisions confronting the Sixteenth President of the United States. While history validates he made the best decision he could at the time, the country still divided. In and of itself, there is no guarantee of a good outcome when none of the options are good.

So, what does a leader do when all options are bad?

If you get the loan, you take on more debt. If you don’t get the loan, you go under.
If you fire the CFO; the markets turn on you. If you don’t fire the CFO, the board fires you.
You’re undercapitalized from the start with only a brief window of opportunity to launch the business. But if lady luck doesn’t smile on you, you have only enough capital to stay afloat six months—Max!

There are few leaders who haven’t faced the “no good options” dilemma. It’s the fractured choice of death by fire, or death by hanging. Either way, you die.

Whereas there is not a singular way to handle things when all options are bad, I’ve discovered five possible ways leaders can respond when they’ve entered the cul de sac of bad options. These five possibilities are not in any particular order. Rather, they are an “a la carte” menu of measures. One can choose what option best suits the situation.

1. The Power of Timing. There is not always a need to act immediately. Occasionally by stepping back and getting a broader sense of things, it will give you a clearer perspective. Is this a time to act, or is this time to pause? Some leaders use this “stepping back” period as a time to reflect and meditate, while others think best in the quiet and calm of nature. Thinking with a clear head and calm mind always yields better decisions.

2. Reframe the Dilemma. Keeping in mind what was stated in the last point, let’s take it further. Some issues are clearly problems to be solved, while others are only tensions to be managed. It’s important to know which is which. It’s okay to live with some “tensions” for awhile. Managing the tension of a situation may be all that’s needed—at least for now.

3. Make the Tough Call. Leaders instinctively understand when all options are bad, that a “call” still has to be made. Leaders don’t have the option of punting the ball when confronted by the difficult. When all available options have been weighed, you may end up having to select the best of the worst.

Draw on Intestinal Fortitude. This has to do with digging deep into the essence of who you are and forging ahead with the data you have in making a decision. At core, it’s the courage to confront uncertainty.

Connecting to People of Wisdom. Experienced leaders have discovered the value of having in their lives persons of wisdom. This may include people who know the technical side of your business, but may also include people who have just a good sense of things—that coveted ability to see 360°.

The good thing about “No good option” times, is that they do not happen often. When they do, leaders are in for a bumpy ride. But it’s during the bumpiness that leaders hone their skills and sharpen their abilities to lead when there are multiple options, or no viable options at all.

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