Why must a leader be decisive? It’s better to do the right thing…

April 12, 2022

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
Man thinking about something surrounded by question marks

An effective leader needs many capabilities and a wide range of skills. For decades, the idea of ‘decisiveness’ has been viewed as one of the most important. But these days, does that still hold true?

It’s certainly true that when times are stable and the problems that occur have been seen and resolved many times before, then it makes absolute sense to be quick and certain in making good decisions about what to do, when and how.

But when times are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, why must a leader be decisive? When the problems are unfamiliar and their solutions require creative thinking and innovation, being quickly decisive in such situations could be a very bad idea.

Let’s be clear, decisiveness is often seen as important at least in part because of the impression it creates.

Leaders who are decisive are often seen as dynamic, in control and providing clear direction for their teams and people. Their people often view this as a laudable quality because they get immediate answers and can get on with their work. So far so good.

But, above all of that, the key requirement for any decision in this complicated, contemporary world is not just to be fast, but to be right. Yes, both fast & right would be ideal – but that may not always be possible and therefore it might sometimes be better to sacrifice some of the speed in favour of really ‘thinking things through’.

Making quick decisions without having time to be fully aware of the implications can sometimes be necessary, but probably only some of the time and it carries significant risk.

It is more important than ever in these challenging times to make intelligent decisions and to ‘do the right thing’, sending out the right examples and the right subconscious messages as a role model.

Yes, people want their leaders to give them clarity, but they also need them not to mislead them or lead them astray. Leaders set the tone and show others how they should respond in a similar situation. So what message is being sent out by making snap judgements without engaging people in understanding the rationale?

There is another, less-frequently discussed reason that some people like their leaders to be clear and decisive: it enables those people to abdicate responsibility for the decision. If you made the decision, then they don’t have to shoulder the blame if it proves to be wrong. It removes accountability for the individuals and leaves the leader with full responsibility.

However, this is rarely likely to be helpful.

Such an abdication of responsibility is in fact a very significant disadvantage when what we actually want from our people is engagement, empowerment, creativity and motivation.

Decisive leaders who make quick decisions and deploy their people to implement them are, whether through deliberate choice or inadvertently, preventing their people from learning how to make the decision themselves and thereby removing an important opportunity for growth and development. They are also ensuring that the next time a decision needs to be made, those people will come back to the leader again. And again. And again.

So it’s worth reflecting on this. It is possible to be the sort of leader that is quick and decisive when it’s exactly the right thing to do: such as in an emergency or a crisis. Those times when only the leader has the necessary knowledge, or when the consequences and risks are such that the leader needs to take responsibility on behalf of their team. The rest of the time, perhaps it’s best to be a leader who asks their people “so what would you do?” and helps them to understand how to reach a good decision, independently.

If reading that just made you think “what’s the point of me as the manager then?”, then it may be time to reflect and re-evaluate your understanding of the modern manager & leader’s role.

You aren’t really there to decide everything and retain authority for every decision, or to be ‘the boss’. A big part of your job is to develop the capability of your team members, nurture future leaders, encourage innovation and empower your people to engage, develop and learn.

Why must a leader be decisive? It’s clear that it is more important to make the right decision, at the right time, that is right for their people.

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