Welcome to the Leadership Almanac

Gary Winters

It's All About Leadership

Creator of the Popular

In a recent post, I listed Seven Simple Rules for Leaders. The sixth is, Don’t waste time doubting your decisions. Act. There will be time for learning later.

In other words, great leaders are decisive. They take a “ready, aim, fire!” approach. Far too many other leaders, in my experience, err on the side of “ready, ready, ready, aim, fire!” or “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, fire!”

A colleague and I were asked to facilitate an “emergency” leadership conference for the top twenty five or so managers of a telecom company which had just laid off one third of the employees (including many managers as well).

Everyone worked hard that weekend. At one point, we even had to have a “mock funeral” for a laid-off senior manager – the fellow who had played Santa Claus at the annual company holiday party for several years. It was a tough retreat, and the leadership team had to make many tough choices before it was over.

Throughout the weekend, John, the CEO, was getting feedback both directly and indirectly that one of the obstacles to the organization’s progress was his own indecisiveness. He was told by his team that he leaned all too often in the direction of accumulating unrealistically strong evidence before he choose a course of action.

John seemed stunned by the feedback, and wanted to take it to heart. At the conclusion of the retreat, he made some fairly predictable concluding remarks, thanking everyone for giving up their weekend, engaging in the process, and generating some bold new ideas on how to take the company forward.

And then he paused, and looked out over the group. “I’ve been given some rather pointed feedback about my decision-making process. I want to thank you for being honest with me. And I’m going to close with one thought.

“From now on, I’m going to be more decisive. If that’s okay with you!”

Sigh. Some people just don’t get it!

One of the most important aspects of leadership is good decision-making. I’ve co-written a book about it, To Do or Not To Do, which describes an easy-to-use system for determining how, and when to involve others in your decision making process.

What that book doesn’t address is how to be more decisive. If you’re going to be an effective leader, you must lean the direction of bold moves in response to changing conditions as you take your team or organization in pursuit of its vision.

So how do you get off the dime and make an important decision?

Here’s a simple system that a colleague taught me when I was wrestling with a tough decision. She suggested that I ask myself:

  • ž  What is my head telling me what to do?
  • ž  What is my heart telling me what to do?
  • ž  What is my gut telling me to do?

I believe most of us favor one of these domains over the others. For instance, I usually trust my gut to make the right decision. More often than not, it’s right. But I’ve learned I’ll make a better decision when I listen to my heart and head as well.

My head plays with the facts as I know them, and tries to reach a logical decision.

My heart deals with the feelings I have about the issue, and tries to make a decision that protects me as well as others from unpleasant emotions.

My gut, however, is driven by my intuition, and in my experience is often able to choose a wise path.

That said, my gut typically tells me to go with the first choice that comes to mind. (Must be from taking too many personality inventories, when we’re told to go with our first response, rather than trying to “psych” out the test.)

While trusting my works frequently, it isn’t good enough all the time. That is when I must let my head and heart weigh in, and find a solution that resonates with all three.

I’ve learned that I hesitate to make a decision it’s because my head, heart and gut aren’t in alignment.

Once I have that, I make a decision. I act.

I also take comfort in some research I was told about years ago. I can’t swear this is true, and I can’t site the research, but I was told that only about 4% of our decisions actually make a fundamental difference in the way things turn out. In other words, any choice is better than no choice at least 96% of the time.

So when I’m faced with a 4% decision, I ask myself three questions: What would my head suggest? What would my heart suggest? What would my gut suggest? Once I get those into alignment, I make a decision and don’t look back.

Am I always right? Of course not. But I can learn from poor choices, if they happen.

I’ve found a bias for action (and decisiveness) far outweighs the costs of being indecisive.

I’m delighted I found your website;
the world audience, particularly the
American culture, loves to second
and third guess decisions and to
instill the guilt and shame game.
Making a “gut call” decision, I believe,
is highly effective…and has been consistenly
proven to be on-target. Unfortunately,
sometimes, a decison made, although
correct, will leave you a loner and
people will reject or ignore you…that’s
why I insist people communicate with
me in writing — verbal agreements
are quick excuses for people to
“forget” or not keep their word…
that’s where they find what I
call “your doubt zone.”

Thank you!

When working in computer-based training, I worked on a course on on how to fire mortars. The sequence is ready, fire, aim. You can guestimate where that first shell will fall, but till you’ve shot one round, you really won’t know where they are landing, and hence how to make corrections so you can hit your target.

A Ross:

That’s a great question. I think as I get older, I find it harder to make decisions regarding sweeping changes (where I live, for example) but I find the everyday decisions a lot easier. I wonder if anyone’s researched the question?

Don, you’ve described an excellent principle I like to encourage in folks: when you want/need something from someone (more than they want/need it from you) it’s FAR better to (temporarily) adapt to their style of operating, than to insist they adapt to yours.

I learn something new every day. Interesting view of things.

As a side note, it seems I become more indecisive the older I get. I wonder how many other people end up feeling that way as well.

Thank you for the continuing series of great articles.

Now a personal perspective about my decision-making evolution.

In 1989 I went to work for a management consulting firm. My boss’s boss was the top person in my management chain. He made very fast decisions and he stuck to them. If I didn’t come in prepared with the problem and my solution to deliver it in a few minutes of his precious time, he always gave me an answer I didn’t like. I initially resented his style

Then I started to reason out why he was that way. I changed my approach and thinking to better explain my situations and resolutions to him. My success rate for agreeing to my resolutions increased.

From that experience, I learned to make solid and decisive decisions. I incorporated part of his style into mine and I know he was right.

If I might mention one more corporate truism I discovered along the way: “It is easier to seek forgiveness than to obtain permission.” That corporate tattoo is on my soul…


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