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Leading with Character: Decision-Making

Last week, senior NATO leaders met on July 11-12th at the highly-visible annual summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. There, they addressed the most pressing challenges faced by the Alliance, including strengthening NATO’s deterrence and defense and bringing Ukraine closer to the membership. It was a time for globally impactful decision-making. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy hoped the Alliance would, at a minimum, lay out a timeline for Ukrainian membership.

Despite warm reassurances, NATO decided not to endorse a path for Ukraine to become a member, causing President Zelenskyy to expostulate in frustration, “Uncertainty is weakness.” I have no knowledge of the talks regarding Ukrainian membership, and therefore no basis for judgment, but that statement made me think about a key requirement for any leader—making tough decisions.

Decision-Making Takes Strength

Recently, while striding away on the elliptical machine at the local gym, I saw a young man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the bold proclamation, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I recognized the slogan as one attributed to the famous Marine Corps General Chesty Puller. In a flash my brain melded the words of President Zelenskyy and the Marines into a new version, “Decision-making is strength leaving the brain.”

Throughout my 40 years in uniform with the US Coast Guard, my biggest frustrations stemmed from one source: people who couldn’t or wouldn’t make decisions. I believe the primary function of a leader is to make the tough decisions required to get the job done, be it running a mission, campaign, business, classroom, family or anything that requires basic leadership. Almost everything worthwhile in life requires weighing risks and making tough, trade-off decisions. Yet I’ve worked with leaders who lacked the moral courage to make those tough decisions, leaving their workplaces in a state of uncertainty and poor morale.

Impediments to Decision-Making

Adaptive, flexible organizations create cultures that empower their members and encourage decision-making at the appropriate levels. They prepare and train people to act when needed without having to wait for permission—to seize an opportunity or manage a crisis. Yet, I’ve witnessed impediments to decision-making, three of which I’ll share here in hopes of helping people recognize and remediate shortcomings.

Paralysis by Analysis:  Every subordinate yearns to follow a leader who acts decisively when circumstances dictate. Instead, leaders often disappoint by hesitating to make a decision, stalling in the hope of one more piece of information. They fall victim to the “paralysis by analysis” syndrome, setting aside the tough decisions. Their indecision often leads to deterioration of trust, missed opportunities for the organization and frustration for its members.

Leaders should expect the best, most relevant information their staff can provide. They must also realize and accept there will be times when the available information might not seem like enough. That’s particularly true in complex situations or crises. Sometimes, the most urgent decisions must be made with the scantiest information.

Early in my career, I came across a quote by General George Patton. “A good plan violently executed today is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Those wise words forever served as my decision-making guide. Leading with character means analyzing the risks and taking responsibility to make the tough decisions, even if doing so means facing criticism. Leaders must believe in themselves and their people, trust their instincts, and make the necessary decisions in a timely manner.

Consensus Conundrum: Some leaders defer decisions to avoid conflict when stakeholders disagree. That can result in the “consensus conundrum.” To avert this pitfall, executives should subscribe to what I call “the rule of three Cs.” Be wise with cooperation and collaboration but be wary of consensus. Savvy leaders understand the value of leveraging cooperation and collaboration to facilitate problem-solving and decision-making. They also understand—and avoid—the futility of trying to achieve consensus.

Tough decisions pushed up to the senior level seldom enjoy consensus. If people all agreed, the decision would have been made at a lower level. Instead, a truly diverse team advising a senior leader should display a healthy difference in perspectives. Not everyone will agree, which should be considered a strength, not a weakness. A robust selection of ideas and options will better inform the decision-maker.

Being Nice Illusion: Some leaders mistakenly equate leading to cheerleading. They believe if they’re nice and well-liked, people will perform and behave well for them. But the opposite is often true. I have walked into new jobs where my first task was to improve a workplace climate that had degenerated because a supervisor failed to hold employees accountable for bad behavior or substandard performance.

As leaders explore ways to connect with their workforce, they may see being nice as a virtue. Nowhere in a leader’s job description is there a requirement to be nice. Leaders who prioritize being nice may end up achieving their goal of being liked, but they may not be respected or effective.

Intuitive leaders of character know how to engage with all employees, from the junior-most to those more senior. They use personal and professional power, not position power, whenever possible. They discern when to be nice, when to be exacting, and when to get down to the business of deciding. They demonstrate the moral courage to make tough decisions with the available information and to manage the consequences as best they can.

Look in the mirror. Evaluate your own decision-making ability; how can you better serve the people you lead by guarding against the paralysis by analysis syndrome, consensus conundrum, and being nice illusion?

Please join me next time for more on Leading with Character.

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