Sometimes, your best choice of action is to do nothing, and sometimes that is not an easy decision. I was reminded of this during the world’s recent challenge to decide how to deal with Gadhafi in Libya.
Julie Straw in The 4-Dimensional Manager discusses when doing nothing is your best choice. Her screening criteria go like this:
- Is this situation important to me?
- Is it possible to change this situation?
- If it is possible to change this situation, are the potential rewards worth the effort (and I would add, the risk)?
The situation in Libya pushes us to Julie’s third point. Human rights abuses and military action against civilian populations matter to most of us, and between the U.S. and NATO, there is certainly enough power to intervene and remove the regime. However, the risks of opening a third war in the Muslim world are huge, and in the face of war-weary public sentiment, are substantial and caused much hand wringing and head scratching among the world’s policy makers before the UN vote for a no-fly zone.
As a manager, I have often chosen inaction because I was maxed out with higher priorities – i.e., the situation might have been bad but not as important as other priorities, and choices had to be made. My belief system says that change is never impossible, but often the risks or costs of creating that change outweigh potential benefits.
I’m not judging either action or inaction against Gadhafi, but rather using this to make a point. Choices to act must always be framed against values, interests, and the broader context, including opportunity costs. Those who respond to crises impulsively will soon overreach.
When you are wired towards action, as most successful leaders are, it is difficult to do nothing, especially when doing nothing means allowing a bad situation to continue. Still, that is sometimes the best option.
When it is, however, strong leaders don’t whine. They turn lemons into lemonade by focusing on the upside benefit of not being distracted from what you do choose to act on, rather than the downside of allowing a bad situation to continue.