Pure Decisiveness Is Overrated
This more nuanced variety is the domain of great leaders
Decisiveness is a trait of great leaders. It conveys confidence, boldness, and courage. If a CEO wants her team to consistently perform at high levels, one of the most important things she can do is be reliably decisive.
Yet what I’ve learned from decades of observation as a consultant to executive leaders and boards of directors, and a stint as both a chief strategy officer and COO, is that what inspires others the most when decisiveness is employed with a measure of reserve. The great leader keeps decisiveness firmly in the strengths column and reduces risk that it inadvertently becomes a limitation by being willing and able to make decisions surely and swiftly.
Yet they do so only after adequate consumption of, but rarely over-analysis of, relevant data and perspectives. They combine their decisiveness with a prevailing but well-managed sense of intellectual curiosity.
Behavioral statistician and leadership expert Joseph Folkman puts it this way: “Despite the endless amount of data we can access today, there will never be enough to ensure a decision is correct.
Waiting for more data causes people to miss getting ahead of the competition. Sometimes good choices this year become bad choices next year.” What’s crucial is to collect and digest just enough information on which to reasonably base a decision. And then take action.
I developed this chart to illustrate the practicality of adequately but not overly informed decision making.
This diagram offers a way to visualize the outcomes of different combinations of decisiveness and intellectual curiosity.
The top left quadrant depicts a leader who has a genuine thirst for data and perspectives yet, once presented, struggles to turn information into action. He is anxious about the ever-present risk of making a wrong choice.
Sometimes he deliberates until the opportunity fades and thus the pressure is diminished. His commitment to be informed is commendable, and his people likely feel heard and engaged as a result. Yet the tangible outcome is a general state of analysis paralysis.
The lower left quadrant depicts an executive leader who is neither decisive nor particularly committed to learning what there is to know. When she does make a crisp and clear decision, it is half-informed. Her propensity renders her teams and organization susceptible to stagnation and disengagement and her company at risk of falling behind.
The lower right quadrant visualizes a leader who relies on his gut first and foremost. He can make decisions fast, conveniently unburdened by the machinations of soliciting input.
Such inner certainty likely inspires confidence among at least some members of his team. The downside is that poorly vetted decisions can be very costly. And his team likely feels isolated and disenfranchised, as does he, because of the sheer nature of going it alone.
Finally, the upper right corner depicts a leader who balances notable intellectual curiosity with a demonstrated commitment to making decisions and sustaining them. She is reliably decisive and has set herself up to be quickly and adequately informed in decision-making moments.
Her rigor includes quickly accessing and examining data, assessing previous results, seeking out varied perspectives, and asking what guidance is held in broader corporate strategy. She makes all of that happen quickly, she decides, and then her team moves.
How exactly does one learn to be a decision-maker who works in the top-right quadrant, one who is not only decisive but adequately but not over-informed?
Develop your own simple leadership-decision formula. Best-selling author and executive coach Lolly Dascal writes, “One of the best ways to become more decisive is to develop a system of thinking through things.” Take her advice by setting aside time to scribble out a simple diagram of your optimal decision-making process. Recruit outside help if you must.
Consider questions like, what are your preferred decision inputs? In what sequence do you like to consider them? How do you prefer to assess the degree your options advance corporate strategy? What fundamental question(s) must be answered for you?
Share your draft decision-making scheme with your deputies, collect their input, then formalize it together. “This is how I want to make decisions going forward,” you might say. “I need you to be sure I have all of this, and I’ll promise to make clear decisions quickly.” Then when faced with consequential choices, make a show of following your formula religiously, being communicative and clear with your staff about exactly what you’re doing and why.
Narrow options tenaciously. This is a natural component of your leadership-decision formula, but it’s worth calling out on its own. When the sky is the limit, it’s impossible to know where to start. When faced with a decision, commit to narrowing your options early. Move to quickly identify and set aside options that cloud your perspective. Find yourself the cleanest possible slate on which to decide.
Learn to identify when fear has snuck in. There is no shame in acknowledging the role that fear plays in all of us. Ultra-successful senior executives are particularly susceptible to bouts of private fear because livelihoods and their reputations are on the line. Some topmost leaders harbor fear that their staff, a peer, board members, or investors will play “Gotcha!” should a decision go wrong.
When faced with major choices, learn to identify when fear creeps in. Fear often brings with it a physiological sidekick like a clenched jaw, your chest tightening, or even your brow furrowing — any of those can be a sign. Learn to be fully aware when fear is at work so you can manage it and don’t allow it to unduly compromise your ability to seize opportunity or respond to crisis with wisdom.
Stay your course (until it’s time not to). When you make a consequential decision, show that you mean it. Be part of follow-on strategy conversations and stay apprised of implementation. Show interest in the learnings that arise and progress that is made.
Importantly, as time passes, give the decision the time it needs to mature and bear fruit. There is space between adherence to tired strategy no matter what and second-guessing your choices at every negative indicator. Take care to balance staying the course with being adaptive.
Down the road, if results tell you it’s time to replace a decision you made, there is no shame in it. Be intentional and transparent about the need to adapt; resist the temptation to gloss over it. It’s part of the leadership process. Just don’t be so adaptive that your decisions rarely have time to be followed through, and your team exists in perpetual whiplash.
You and every other business leader will make a decision today that two years from now will seems so-so at best. It’s a fact of doing business amid uncertainty and change. Yet for your business to maintain an edge, you must be decisive anyway. The only thing you can do is set yourself to be adequately informed enough to decide quickly. And then get on with it.
Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.