There is a quality that can set a great organization apart from the rest – the ability to make bold, effective decisions in difficult and uncertain times. As you’d expect, it starts with the leader. After all, leaders are deciders. Yet many leaders struggle with this essential duty – making the decision and asking people to commit.
Can you recall the last time your team was faced with a scenario like this: the stakes are high, the emotions are hot, and the way forward is fraught with imperfect options?
We’d give anything for a well-timed, deeply-thoughtful decision…a bold step or clear course of action that we understand and can rally around. Once the analysis and listening sessions are done, the views are shared, and the discussion has run its course, the team looks to the leader to make the final decision.
Let’s set the stage.
A fundamental role of leaders is to provide clarity and closure to matters that are unclear and unresolved. The higher the stakes, the higher the need for decision-quality. These are matters that are high-cost, high-risk, far-reaching and broadly impactful on customers and employees. In addition to these high stakes, we need to consider the urgency: do we need a timely decision now or a better one later?
I can already hear some people’s reactions. Aren’t leaders supposed to empower others to decide? Isn’t the goal to be data driven? Shouldn’t we allow room for more and more alternative viewpoints? Do we, in fact, need to decide? Can’t some matters be left open-ended to allow for flexibility and spontaneity?
Emphatically yes — on all accounts. But even the choice to delegate a decision, to dig deeper into the numbers or opinions, or to leave something undecided is in itself a decision. One of the kindest actions a leader can take is to continually revisit the “open issues” creating ambiguity in their organization and decide how, where and when to bring these matters to closure.
Leaders cannot avoid this reality: failure to decide is a decision. It’s an abdication of responsibility and one that essentially forfeits the role of a leader. As my father used to say, “when the right people won’t do the work, the wrong people will… because the work must get done.”
Those who want to lead faster, better decisions must first overcome four fears:
The fear of being wrong may push us into paralysis mode when the desire for certainty pushes us to over-gather, over-analyze and endlessly spin on potential scenarios. Data can be helpful in narrowing options, but most risky decisions involve, well, risk. So, at some point, we must rely on informed intuition. Leaders, when you find yourself hesitating, ask your team for an honest gut check. If this was all the information we had, what decision would we make? The military teaches young commanders the 70% rule; when you have about 70% of the facts/data you think you need, or can reasonably obtain, it’s likely time to act. Striving for more than 70% leads to inaction and delay. Going with less, leads to carelessness. I often push teams with this question: What’s the boldest decision we can make today with the information we have? Most decisions we face in life fall into the “decide now, adjust as we go” category.
- The fear of inefficiency, either of the process or timing, may push us prematurely into decision-announcing mode vs. decision-making mode. This often leads to an artificial narrowing of options, a lack of innovation, and a lack of followership. Leaders, when you find that you tend to announce your decisions to the team rather than make your decision with the team, watch out. You may be guilty of leaving insights and options unexplored. While this may slow down the process, it may increase the quality of and commitment to the decision itself.
- The fear of being disliked may push us too far into consensus-building mode. Wanting everyone to agree or be excited about the decision (and us) can lead to an excessive amount of opinion-sharing. The goal of a discussion is not to convince, but rather, to learn. Make it safe to disagree by asking more open-ended questions. Draw people out and don’t allow them to hold back to avoid artificial harmony. Restate the contrasting views and what you’re learning. Explore options and potential unintended consequences. If a general agreement around one idea doesn’t happen, then have the courage to make the call and ask for a commitment.
- The fear of looking foolish may push us into defensive mode. Wanting to be right or avoiding being embarrassed by being wrong, can lead us to defensiveness which may cause us to reject opposing opinions. There is a difference between being decisive and being closed-minded. The decisive leader remains curious and open-minded by actively seeking out contrary views or thoughtful implications. They want to make the best decision, even if that means changing one’s mind humbly and publicly.
Humble leaders are capable of driving higher-quality decisions. Knowing they can be wrong, they solicit more input and ensure all the options and insights are on the table. Humble leaders make it safe for others to share their views.
Courageous leaders are capable of driving more timely decisions. Fearing inaction more than wrong action, they wear the responsibility of decider like a heavy backpack. They push their teams to be bold.
Faster, better decisions. I didn’t say perfect decisions, just faster, better. As Alan Mulally, the CEO who led the turnaround of Ford after 2008 once said, “I don’t think of it as failure. I see it as, we make a plan, then work the plan. If the plan is not working, we make a new plan.”
Be humble. Be courageous. Identify and work through your fears – your team is counting on you to make faster, better decisions to set them apart from others!