Leadership and Decision Making


Many of us assume that the best leaders are those who can be independently and firmly decisive. It’s not surprising, especially when looking at leadership through a more traditional hierarchical lens. If the leader is the captain of the ship – the person holding the top position of power – shouldn’t they be the one to confidently tell the crew which direction to go? This may be the case in certain situations, but is it always true?

As the understanding of leadership has expanded beyond the bounds of the corner office, it’s clear that the essential qualities of an effective leader can be learned and exhibited by anyone regardless of title or position. And guess what? Decisiveness isn’t on that list of essential qualities (at least not my list).

Why, then, do leaders in supervisory positions grapple with the need to be so independently and firmly decisive? Here are a few theories:

Organizations Need to Take Action: When it comes down to it, organizations have goals to meet and aspirations to chase. No organization will survive while sitting still. Because action and achievement are a direct result of decision-making, there’s an inherent need to make choices and decide upon direction.

All Decisions Can’t Be Made By Consensus: Even the most democratic and consensus-based leaders have to put the proverbial stake in the ground to bring certain decisions to finality. As we’ve probably all experienced, making decisions by committee has its limits.

Leaders Want to Appear Confident and In-Control: This may be the strongest factor that motivates supervisory leaders to become firmer and more isolated in their decision-making. Sometimes, it can even lead to a dictatorial approach. It’s actually a natural and primal instinct. We think that the more dominance we show, the stronger and more in control we’ll be (and appear). This line of thinking can be particularly present in leaders who, for whatever reason at the time, don’t feel confident on the inside. To counteract the internal fear that they’re “not being taken seriously” or “not being seen as a strong leader,” they opt for a firmer outward show of decisiveness. The challenge with this approach, however, is that it can leave the team you depend upon behind in the dust.

So, how should leaders in top positions of power balance the need to drive decisions, catalyze action and command respect with the challenge of keeping team members engaged and involved?

Here are a 7 tips for how to effectively approach decision-making as a leader of a team:

  1. Consider Timing and Deadlines: Leaders can gauge how directive or democratic to be dependent on the situation. Times of stress, extreme pressure or tight deadlines typically benefit from leaders who are prepared to make a quick, firm and unilateral decision. In these settings, team members can actually prefer to be told what to do, as it enables them to quickly and successfully address the need at hand. However, if the situation is one that allows for time and planning, it can benefit from a more democratic approach – one that incorporates participation and dialogue.
  1. Factor-In the Weight and Impact of the Decision: Some decisions will have a deep impact across every person or customer tied to an organization. These decisions naturally involve high levels of risk. Other decisions are low-risk, and may only affect a small number of people or processes. Depending on this context, a leader may need to be more or less involved in owning a decision and making a “final call.” That said, leaders shouldn’t assume that all low-risk decisions could be handed off or that they themselves should handle all high-risk decisions. There are strategic reasons to involve others in shared decision-making on both ends of the spectrum.
  1. When You Can, Empower Others: Whenever a leader can empower individuals and teams to own or participate in a decision-making process, it will create higher levels of engagement. As Daniel Pink describes in his book on motivation entitled “Drive,” a crucial aspect of creating intrinsically driven employees is to give them greater autonomy and ownership.
  1. Co-Design a Decision-Making Framework: One way to ensure buy-in and participation is to co-design and clarify a decision-making framework for your team. This means having a deliberate conversation about what an effective decision-making process would look like. What are the steps involved? What role does information gathering play? What type of information is most valuable? Who should be involved in what decisions? How important is consensus? Having this discussion will itself become an engagement tool, and can create more awareness and clarity about how and why certain decisions are made in certain ways.
  1. Understand What Information Is Important for Decision Making: When time allows, gathering information can be an important part of the decision making process. It can also be a never-ending endeavor, especially in today’s “information age” of big data. The key is to understand what type of information is most important for a particular decision, and how much of it is needed. Ask yourself these questions as a starting point: Will this decision benefit from detailed quantitative figures, or would qualitative or anecdotal feedback be more appropriate? How do we want to slice-and-dice and display the data? Who else will need to see it, and what is their preferred way of consuming it? What time limits do we want to set on the information-gathering phase of the process? 
  1. Create an Open Space for Exchange and Discussion: Some leaders may feel that soliciting the input of others is a sign of weakness or indecisiveness. This doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, making the time and space for gathering feedback from team members – if done deliberately, confidently and genuinely – will actually strengthen a leader’s influence and increase the trust and buy-in present among the team. Creating an open exchange of perspectives ultimately leads to better decisions, as more input can be considered in the mix. The word “open” is important, as team members need to feel comfortable expressing differing views without judgment or threat of punishment.
  1. Know When to Drive the Process Towards Finality: Decisions can’t hang in the balance forever. There’s a point at which team members can become more stressed due to ongoing ambiguity and the inability to act, especially if deadlines are looming. This is the time for a leader to drive the process to conclusion.   If there’s no clear consensus from the group, it’s the leader’s role to make the final call. If they’ve effectively gathered information and solicited feedback during the process, others will respect the leader’s decision that much more.