There were 30-ish doctoral candidates standing on a street corner just outside of Washington DC. For all of us, except one, this was the first time in our lives that we’ve been at this location. I’m being generous with the “one”, as you’ll see in a minute.
We were there for a weekend seminar and one of the activities was visiting the National Museum of Health and Medicine. We had taken the metro and came out at this street corner expecting to be able to see it.
So there we were, bewildered, standing in the hot sun, wondering what to do next. Finally, the “one” said, “this looks very familiar. I think I’ve been here before. We need to head that direction. It will just be over this overpass and down the street.” He was the first person bold enough to make a decision.
So 30 of us walk over the overpass, about a quarter of a mile, when the “one” scratches his head and says, “I’m turned around. We should have actually went the other direction.”
Great leaders make difficult decisions
Make a decision
Making decisions is difficult. If it’s not difficult to you, you are either too careless with your decisions, not making important decisions, or you have a ton of experience. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, good leaders are courageous enough to make decisions.
There are three things, and probably more, I’ve seen leaders stumble over when it comes to making decisions: finding safety in consensus, making the decision alone, and weak-sauce decisions just to stay employed. I may write individual posts on each of these at some point, but today I’d like to share how I approach these three when I make a decision.
Finding Safety in Consensus
I’ve been a part of various organization where decision-making was primarily managed through consensus. In other words, don’t move forward until everyone agrees on the direction we are taking. Consensus based decision-making is dangerous for a couple of different reasons.
1. It assumes everyone will agree at some point, which is a really poor assumption, and 2. it takes a long time to figure out who’s opinion can be dismissed, which delays the start of action. Consensus is not wrong, but I’ve seen many instances where it significantly delayed forward motion.
In some cases I’ve seen it halt a great idea altogether. I find it’s usually better to start from imperfect and improve as you move forward than it is to wait until you can start with perfect.
There are two approaches I’ve taken to overcome consensus. The first is to make the decision smaller. Instead of making a decision that drastically changes the direction of multiple teams, move forward with changing the direction of one team, or even a few people. Or make it a decision that is under your own locus of control.
Second, I’ve taken the approach of not asking for a decision. Move forward with something you feel passionate about and see if anyone stops you. You will probably be surprised by what you can achieve with just moving forward. If you do decide to move forward, pay attention to the next point.
Making the Decision Alone
This isn’t so much a barrier to making a decision, but it is definitely a barrier to your success as a leader. The best defense against a wrong decision, is a multitude of counselors. “Wait, wait, wait.. that sounds like consensus, Josh.” I didn’t say consensus, I said counselors. Consensus is waiting for people to agree.
Counselors are there to improve the plan and to help you make the right decision. Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counselors they are established.” You can translate “purposes are disappointed” with “whoa! bad decisions happen..” Proverbs 11:14 says “Where there is no counsel, the people fail; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety”.
You need trusted people you can vet ideas with before you need to make the decision, and you need a mind that is open to what they have to say. If you ask someone for their opinion, and then just listen as a courtesy, in other words, to make them feel important, your not doing it right.
Steven Covey’s 5th habit in his book The 7 habits of highly effective people is “seek first to understand, than to be understood.” Listen to learn. If your counselors don’t improve your plan you either need new counselors or you need to change your leadership style.
By the way, sometimes improving your plan is deciding not to move forward. Good counselors aren’t afraid to tell you your idea is bad.
Weak-sauce Decisions, Just to Stay Employed
If you are not making decisions, or making weak decisions, based on your fear that the wrong decision could cost you your job, you should reconsider your thought process. I want to be careful here, because you might be someone who is on the end of a long line of bad decisions, and your job does depend on that next decision you make.
You also might be someone who is in a role or culture where failure is a terminatable offense. I’m speaking in general terms here, and the specifics of your situation might be less amenable to what I’ll share. Self-awareness is another key aspect of leadership that I’ll blog about in the future.
One of the best decisions I have made was to stop making decisions based solely on keeping my job. When I say “keeping my job”, what I mean by that is, not rocking the boat, not sticking out from the norm, not challenging status quo. Doing the same job every day because that is what you were told to do isn’t leadership.
What if I told you your job was to figure out how to do your job better, and to ultimately replace yourself? Your job is not to keep your job, but to simplify it. You need to make it so that others could step in at a moments notice to pick up where you left off?
Your job is to look for innovative ways to make your organization more successful regardless of your role in it, present or future? You won’t find any of these in a typical job description, but these are things leaders do.
Be Courageous and Make a Decision
Not making decisions, or making “safe-for-you” decisions that you think give you the best chance of staying under the radar and pulling in a check every other week, is not the goal. Let me use a metaphor to describe this.
If I hire 20 people to dig trenches all day. The first person that takes the initiative to bring a trencher into work is the person I’m going to keep when times get hard. In fact, he’s the one I’m putting in charge of the other 19.
Don’t let your desire to stay employed cloud your judgement on making common sense decisions. Making a bad decision because it is the status quo, or because current process makes it that way, is weak-sauce decision-making. Change the process. Fight status quo.
At least we failed fast, but after about a 1/2 mile hike going the other direction and realizing that wasn’t the right way either, we were back in the same spot we started. Half of the group found a taxi. The other half pulled out a phone and followed Google Maps. It turned out that the initial direction was the right direction, we just had to go another mile and a half.
I’ll never forget sitting down on the bench at the museum and watching one of the last colleagues to finish the hike walking in barefoot and angry. It was hot, his shoes were killing his feet, and the hike wasn’t even the purpose of the afternoon; the museum was.
People are counting on you to make a decision as a leader. Don’t look for safety in consensus. Don’t make decisions alone. And don’t make weak-sauce decisions based on status quo. Be bold in the decisions you make and lead.
Check out “Finding Leadership – An Introduction to the Series” to see the purpose of the series along with a list of topics that will be covered.
SIDE NOTE: The donuts on the picture are from Sandy’s Donuts on Leonard in NW Grand Rapids. If you are in GR looking for some sweet awesome dough, make a decision to go today.