Emotional fortitude—the ability to stay clear-headed while exploring one’s emotional reactions to sources of tension—can improve a CEO’s resilience to the stressors of decision-making and lead to better decision outcomes.
Whether at a large, established firm or a fast-growing one, making decisions while staring disruption in the face may be the most grueling element of being a CEO. Data feels insufficient. Assumptions feel tenuous. Options feel constrained. Timing feels rushed. Outcomes feel binary: The decision either takes the organization in the right direction or the wrong one.
Yet executives—particularly CEOs—are expected to be the most qualified people in their organization to make decisions. CEOs, perhaps more than those in any other executive role, feel enormous pressure to get it “right.” Even the most level-headed CEO is apt to experience sleepless nights and personal doubts about the choices they make and the consequences that result. If the decision ultimately proves to be a poor one, there is no one else to blame. How can CEOs increase their chances of making an optimal decision when all of the alternatives may not be known, when time is not on their side, and when emotions play a central role before, during, and after the decision is made?
In our original research on how CEOs deal with disruption, the most striking stories we heard from the CEOs we interviewed were those that reflected the ways they experience the process (and process the experience) of making big decisions in response to real or feared disruption. Based on these stories, we identified a trait we call emotional fortitude as one of the five signature attributes of an “undisruptable” CEO. More than the other four, emotional fortitude truly represents the “inner work” that effective CEOs perform as they journey through the decision-making process and live with the consequences.
The intellectual and emotional tensions of perilous decisions
Before examining what exactly “emotional fortitude” means, it’s useful to first understand the context in which it should come into play—the need to make critical decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty.
When uncertainty is very high, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend the entire universe of viable options. Similarly, it may be just as difficult to predict accurately the potential outcomes of the readily identifiable options. Compounding these difficulties is the need to feel relatively confident that one has engaged in the most thorough “internal homework” to inform one’s choice. Yet under conditions of high uncertainty, it is often unclear just how much thinking and analysis, not to mention research and data-gathering, is enough.
Absent unambiguous methods, with the consequences of getting it “wrong” potentially severe, leadership teams and CEOs may face several difficulties. They may suffer from “analysis paralysis,” perseverating with the hope (or fantasy) that delay will yield more data, greater clarity, and new options. Or they may decide to “go with their gut,” making snap judgments that they may not rigorously examine even if they have data and inputs at their disposal.
Both approaches can relieve the intellectual and emotional stress that accompanies decision-making, either by seeking to reduce uncertainty and doubt or by refusing to consider information that may generate uncertainty and doubt. Yet neither path is likely to consistently help CEOs do what is most needed: act decisively while taking the complexities of each decision into appropriate account. This need to tolerate uncertainty and remain cognizant of conflicts while still making timely decisions is what drives the need for emotional fortitude.
The superpower of metacognition
Emotional fortitude is the art of examining one’s own thoughts and emotions surrounding a decision in order to consider those thoughts and emotions themselves as inputs to the decision-making process. A central aspect of emotional fortitude is metacognition: being keenly conscious of the thoughts, intuitions, and feelings that arise when one faces a challenge. For CEOs making difficult decisions, this means identifying and analyzing their thoughts and feelings when they need to do things such as consider conflicting data, priorities, or points of view; work with incomplete information; or choose among options that are all unsatisfactory in some way. The essence of emotional fortitude is the ability to stay clear-headed while exploring one’s reactions to these sources of tension.
While the natural temptation may be to suppress the discomfort one feels under such circumstances, those with emotional fortitude not only allow themselves to feel that discomfort, but methodically assess and analyze their distress to see what they can learn from it. They consciously inventory their thoughts and feelings while in the throes of the decision-making process.
A CEO, for example, may feel apprehension, angst, or even fear when called upon to make a complex decision. Rather than attempting to bury these emotions—as jumbled, conflicting, and uncomfortable as they may be—a CEO with emotional fortitude is able to “hold” these emotions at arm’s length and further examine them, which can prompt insights that guide appropriate action. They may realize, for instance, that their anxiety stems primarily from a sense that the options considered were only of the traditional type; that new “out-of-the-box” alternatives had not been created and, therefore, the context to inform the decision was insufficient. Knowing this, they can then proceed to ask more questions to understand where their emotional cues originated—and to determine whether, in fact, a more expansive option set should be considered. A CEO responding to conditions of extreme uncertainty may even embrace the adrenaline-driven emotional intensity triggered by the awareness of a looming threat (and the awareness of the inadequacy of the current response plan) to unleash radically higher levels of creativity in generating options.
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By Benjamin Finzi, Vincent Firth, Mark Lipton & Kathy Lu