Here is an example: There is a financial crisis that must be fixed but the pain of fixing it is going to be painful because there are no good options. Any and all decisions on the table are hard decisions that will bring some kind of pain. Or you have a personnel decision that needs to be dealt with but there seems to be no upside in the choices you have in dealing with it. There are times when the only choices we have are bad choices.
I have seen a variety of responses to situations where all the options are bad options. One response is for leaders to not act at all because they want a good option and they see none. Humanly speaking this is understandable as none of us want to deal with the fallout of bad options. Of course, this simply delays the inevitable and the options rarely get better by waiting.
The exception is with personnel issues where waiting can be a viable option if behaviors known to a few become evident to many by giving the issue time thus minimizing the fallout when a decision is made. However, this is not ignoring the issue but choosing to wait on the issue - a strategic difference.
A second response is to face the bad options realistically and choose the best of the bad options. This is often true in financial situations or where a staff member has caused a situation that is going to be painful to address no matter what.
I recently moderated such a situation internationally where there was not going to be an outcome that was going to be good for either party because of past decisions that others had made. While closure was needed, it was going to be a closure that both parties had to swallow hard to accept. This is often the case in church conflict situations as well where the conflict has become so complicated and contentious that in the short term all that will be experienced is pain.
There is good news however. If leaders will wisely choose a course of action knowing they have no good current options, and knowing that there will be short term pain, there can be long term gains simply because they were willing to do the hard work of tackling the issue in spite of the pain in the process. Choosing the best of bad options today can lead to closure and health down the line.
At times, leadership is nothing more than choosing between bad and painful options. But being willing to make the choice for the sake of a healthier future.