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Gut Check: How Will You Respond To A No-Win Situation?

speaker of the house

It’s no secret that at some point in our careers as leaders we are going to face a no-win situation.

One where no matter what we do, how hard we work, or how many people are on our side, we just cannot successfully fulfill our duties as leaders.

Well, that’s the situation that Republican Rep. John Boehner’s found himself in when he recently decided to step down as the speaker of the House of Representatives. Many understood his decision because they believed he was in an impossible, no-win situation.

The speaker, elected at large from the House of Representatives, is considered one the most important and influential leaders in Washington. The position usually goes to a member of the party that holds a majority in the House.

Over his time as speaker, Boehner was chiefly responsible for maintaining a united front in the Republican Party in the lower house of the U.S. Congress. More often than not, however, he was accused of failing at that prime function. In particular, many Republicans were concerned that he had failed to stop the GOP’s slow and destructive slide to the extreme end of the conservative spectrum, occupied chiefly by the Tea Party.

Under this pressure, Boehner finally reached an important personal decision and resigned from his position.

His decision wasn’t exactly a surprise. There were rumors the GOP was getting ready to get rid of him and bring in a more hardline conservative. What surprised everyone, was that it came only a day after Pope Francis spoke to Congress.

In that speech, the Pope challenged Congress to be better, lecturing the politicians about how leaders are obligated to work together for the benefit of the people they served. The implication was clear: the Pope believed, like many people, that the U.S. Congress had become a place where hyper-partisanism had eclipsed leadership duties.

Perhaps Boehner listened to the Pope and realized that he had failed to overcome that hyper-partisianism.

Was Boehner being too hard on himself? Writing in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank, argued that Boehner never really had a chance to succeed in his role. Milbank believed Boehner wanted to be a great leader, but for most of his time as speaker of the House of Representatives, infighting in the Republican Party made it impossible for anyone to heal the internal rifts that had developed.

Regardless of exactly why Boehner resigned, his plight raises a number of critical questions for all leaders. In particular, how do you respond when you find yourself in a no-win situation?

First off, ask yourself whether you retain any effective authority in your leadership role?  Do you still have influence over the people you lead or key decision makers? Are people still following you? Or, are they reading the writing on the wall and starting to ignore you or buck your directives? Have other leaders begun to usurp some of your duties?

Next, you also need to know if you retain the support and confidence of other leaders, including those at the highest levels of your organization. Many times this feedback may not be transparent. Yet, you see the lack of confidence in subtle ways, such as decisions being made behind your back, or when you are excluded from key meetings. These are all tell-tale signs.

I have seen it many times before in my work with leaders. Something happens, and all of a sudden you’ve lost the confidence and support of your key stakeholders. The downward spiral begins and no matter what you try to do, nothing works. You can certainly confront the issue and tackle it head on. This can help in resetting your path. However, I have found that when a leader loses the confidence of others, the end is near.  Now depending on the organization, it may mean a demotion or an exit.

If you are sensing this in your own leadership role take a moment to look around. There could be clear signs that you have outlived your shelf life.

As I reflect on Boehner’s no-win situation, I cannot help but think that it was nobler to step down, rather than challenge your situation. If your job has become impossible, it may be better to leave on your own volition, rather than get pushed out with your reputation damaged.

What do you think? This week’s Gut Check asks: how will you respond to a no-win situation?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its third edition.

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