The quality of your decisions is the currency of leadership.
It starts easy. The stakes are low. There is a legion of leaders around you who understand you’ve just begun, so when they see the decision in front of you, they proactively offer helpful advice. If the decision appears too complicated, excessively risky, or obviously high stakes, your manager raises her hand and helpfully suggests, “I got this one.”
You are thankful because you had… no idea how to decide.
It gets harder. The stakes increase. There are more blank stares from trusted peers when these decisions appear not because they don’t want to help but because they don’t know. They have never seen this type of decision before. However, they can, like you, know the importance of this decision and the necessity of it being your decision. Your manager will offer to help, but she’ll wait longer to offer this help because she understands the value of you learning how to make this decision.
Then it seems impossible. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Trusted peers grin nervously as you walk. They feel equal parts empathy for the difficulty of the decision and relief that it’s not on their shoulders. You have zero intuition on how to make this decision. No, it’s worse than that. You don’t even know how to decompose the problem to start to understand how to make a decision… or decisions?
Easy, hard, or impossible. The decisions merrily show up each day unaware of your ability or availability of time. They just know you’re the leader and it’s your job to decide.
I have advice. Unfortunately, it’s advice for once you believe you have a decision and not how to make the decision. It’s the same advice repeated three times written in different ways.
Check Your Work
Let’s start with the relief that accompanies the discovery of the hint of a decision. The magnitude of relief is a function of the stakes. The glimmer of potential resolution is intoxicating, but my first piece of advice is to check your work.
It’s glorious, right? Your experience or intuition providing you insight into the proper decision. Feels magical to instantly know the correct approach and these moments blissfully increase as you accumulate years of experience.
Oh, this again. I know how to do this.
The situation may seem familiar. They might be using the exact words to describe the situation, but it behooves you as a leader to reflect on the decision and check your work.
Sure, this seems obvious, but last time it was a different set of people. How will the decision affect this set of people? Are there different potential consequences because it is a different group? Is the fact that I can see the decision so quickly because I truly know the right decision or because the stakes are high I feel the need to decide quickly? What am I missing?
Let the decision swirl in your head a bit. Let it knock around. Let it bump into other ideas. Let it stew, simmer, and evolve. And then…
Ask for Help
I’m miserable at asking for help. It’s not just the introversion thing, but also the stubborn erroneous perception that asking for help is somehow an admission of weakness. They’re looking at me to decide and if I can’t yolo make the right decision then they won’t believe I’m their leader.
In my experience, asking for help, the clear articulation that you don’t know, is a defining trust-building moment with the team. Yes, they like to see you effectively lead, they are proud when you stand in front of the team and explain how we’re going to win, but they, like you, are a work in progress. When you ask your team, your peers, or your manager for help, it levels the playing field and reminds all involved that we’re in this together.
Yes, it is your decision, but no one expects you to bear the entirety of it’s weight. Besides, you have more time than you think because my last bit of advice is to…
My intuition was to put this advice first, but I’m putting it last because it’s the most important. The furiosity with which a high-stakes decision arrives and tells you two facts and a lie.
- Here’s a big decision,
- It’s 100% your responsibility,
- And you better hurry.
The urgency is often the lie. Everyone can clearly see a big decision needs to occur. It’s also readily apparent that it’s entirely yours to make. This combination of the decision’s magnitude and obvious single ownership creates pressure. Don’t confuse pressure with urgency. Don’t confuse importance with urgency.
This last bit of advice is designed to give you the time you need to check your work. Slowing down gives you the opportunity to ask for all the help. Taking time to think on the most critical decisions, in my experience, is how you build a higher quality decision. By slowing down, I drain the emotion, urgency, and irrationality that often arrive with these decisions, and I’m able to see what’s important versus what everyone is urgently yelling.
Big decisions have a fan club. These are the humans swirling around the decision who care deeply about its outcome. They have contradicting motivations: they know enough about the decision area to call themselves experts, but they are also intimately aware (or annoyed) that it’s not their decision to make.
The fan club grows annoyed when you don’t move with – what they perceive as – appropriate urgency, so I’ll repeat myself: the quality of your decisions are the currency of leadership.
It’s not that you moved quickly, it’s that you invested enough of your time to build a quality decision. You won’t be judged on how quickly you decide; you will be judged by the consequences of your decision that appear in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years after you decide. It is these results that build your leadership reputation.
What If I’m Wrong?
That’s the question that shows up in the middle of the night for me when considering a big decision. It’s a good question. What if you’re wrong? What will happen when you decide? Wander those pathways in your head and with your trusted peers because attempting to predict the unpredictable is a critical part of this process. You’ll need to explain these potential consequences when you’re presenting your decision to everyone.
That’s when I know I’ve decided. It’s not that I can explain the decision, it’s that I can tell you the story of how I decide, what I expect to occur as a result, and what we’ll do if I’m wrong. And you understand.
See, because I’ve thought it through, it’s becoming a compelling, thoughtful, and defensive story. When I tell those I trust the story, they believe me.
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