Leading decision making is leading the conversation that improves the quality of those decisions. The primary job of a leader is not to make most of the day-to-day decisions, but to lead in such a way that the people who do make them make better decisions than they would alone. If strategy is the adaptation of planning to the real world of competition and conflict, then decision-making is the real-time response of leadership to the unexpected challenges of execution. While leaders also make decisions during the planning process, it is the decisions made under pressure that advance careers and create legacies.
Decisions are usually defined by three distinct characteristics, each challenging a different part of the leader’s character. First, decisions can be classified as either simple or complex. The degree of complexity is usually determined by data: how much information is needed to make an intelligent decision and how much of that data is actually available. How leaders interpret these factors usually depends on their personalities. Some leaders are prepared to make decisions based on limited or even faulty information. They are typically described as “decisive,” when in fact they may merely be impetuous. Others wait until they have every bit of information before they finally make their decision–and risk missing the window of opportunity for success. They are described as everything from “patient” and “prudent” to “indecisive” and “cowardly.”
Second, decisions can be characterized as easy or difficult. Easy decisions typically have one obvious solution or few real consequences, or both. These easy decisions are usually snapped up way down in the organization by people who wish to score points with superiors or look like they are in command. Meanwhile, the difficult decisions are kicked upward until they reach someone who is either brave enough to take it on or, more likely, has no choice. This cherry-picking of easy decisions, made for political rather than pragmatic reasons, is another reason why excellent leaders enforce institutional cultures that drive decision making back down the organizational chart, placing responsibility on the people best positioned and equipped to make decisions.
In the very best organizations, leaders create a culture based on the principle of personal autonomy and responsibility, in which decision making is not only pushed down to the right people, but those acts are subsequently recognized and rewarded by the rest of the team. This culture is very difficult to develop, mainly because it goes against people’s natural risk aversion, but ultimately it creates value in both the speed of decision making and the quality of the decisions.
Finally, there are pleasant and unpleasant decisions. Everyone likes to make pleasant positive decisions, but nobody likes to make or communicate unpleasant decisions. These are difficult moments for even the most gifted leader.
The speed of decision making is the cycle time of the organization. Nothing determines an organization’s ability to move in its market with agility and speed so much as its ability to make decisions quickly and efficiently. It is important for a leader to know on which side time is located–with them or against them.
To help make that determination, leaders should ask these questions:
* When must this decision be made? Why?
* What is the cost of waiting?
* How fast will feedback be available to determine if the decision was good or bad?
* Is it possible to correct a mistake if the wrong decision is made?
* What is the advantage or necessity to making the decision now?
Failure to give a decision the necessary thought leads to a high probability of remorse because it moves the decision from logic to emotion, which is a less reliable process. It is easy to be dynamic and decisive during the planning stage, but when a leader reaches that jumping-off point where preparation becomes execution and planning becomes strategy, suddenly, in the face of real, measurable consequences that will impact the leader’s reputation and legacy, he or she may come up short on courage.
The natural human tendency is to shirk making a decision about anything that can be pushed up the organization chart to someone else. This eventually results in a team environment in which all of the easy problems are dealt with lower in the organization, while the tough ones end up at the top. This is self-destructive because it reinforces contempt at both ends of the scale: senior management begins to treat the rank-and-file as lazy and incompetent, while lower-level team members start kicking everything difficult upstairs, then sit back in judgment of the successes and failures of their leaders. Decisions should be made by the person who is best equipped by skill, experience, proximity, and past relationship. The leader needs to create and constantly reinforce an institutional culture that drives decision making down the organizational chart and out to the individual who is best equipped to make the decision.
It is a good practice for senior leaders and teams to review the decisions they are making and ask themselves what would have to be installed in the organizational machinery to push decision making to the levels appropriate for each decision.
Decisions demand to be made. In the hierarchy of decision failure, not making a decision is almost always worse than making a bad decision. Bad decisions, as long as they are not utterly ill-advised and catastrophic, keep the organization moving in pace with changing events, and thus can often be rectified by a course correction. Not making a decision at all, although it may seem the safe choice, strips the organization of its momentum.
A leader’s decision-making process should include recognition of how each decision fits into the larger context of an entire career. When it comes to legacy, lack of decisiveness is one of the worst errors of all. Over the course of a career, every decision should reflect the leader’s deepest values rather than expediency, the mood of the moment, or short-term advantage. Excellent leaders recognize that the organizations they run are only as good as the decisions they make. They create and cultivate an institutional culture that both rewards smart, fast decision making and inculcates a sense of personal responsibility when it comes to those decisions.
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