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A Decisive Leader

When lists are made describing the traits desired in a leader, decisiveness is always near the top. A 2014 study of 6500 workers found that decisiveness was one of the top three skills sets that make the biggest impact on helping leaders to build credibility. (The other two skills sets were open communication and personal presence.) As today’s world has become increasingly directionless, I imagine that continues to be on track. The decisiveness required is not primarily about making decisions quickly. It is about fostering a confident and effective way of thinking, deciding, and acting.

A decisive leader is defined as being “characterized by firmness and decision.” Being decisive means that you have the ability to decide and then to act. Effective leadership cannot happen without the ability to make key decisions effectively. You lead your own life confidently and then are able to lead others effectively. It is both a skill and an internal state.

Decisiveness is not being stubborn, arrogant or hasty, but it is the ability to decide with speed and clarity. Whether it is with an emergency-room doctor or a young man trying to decide whether or not to ask the girl to marry him, without clear decisions there can be no action and no results.

Making those clear decisions quickly is important. Effective leaders can decide a course of next action in only a few minutes. The decision may be to simply get more information or do more brainstorming. Until you have made a clear decision, you are simply procrastinating and wasting time.

Although it would be nice if we lived in a world where we could always get perfect information readily, we cannot. Being decisive ultimately means recognizing when you have the best information you are going to get. Then you simply need to decide with the information at hand and move forward. You need to understand that almost all decisions will be based on incomplete information, and the best choice you can make is with the information you have. You can’t know for sure whether your idea will fail or succeed. You can gather information to help you carefully shape it and understand the risks involved, but ultimately you need to decide.

It’s important to know your data threshold to be an effective leader. You will never get 100% of the information you’d like to have. Any attempt to gather that much information will bring your decision-making process to a grinding halt, paralyzing both you and your organization. Many of the best leaders are comfortable making a definitive decision once they have about 65% of the story in place. Everybody’s data threshold is different, but it’s important that it’s under 80%. Going any higher will only slow you and the rest of your team down and make the decision too late to be effective.

The majority of decisions you face will not have huge repercussions for mistakes. There are few decisions in life or business that cannot be reversed or modified. Of course, outcomes do matter, but they are rarely permanent. Good leaders recognize that they will inevitably make a wrong decision at some point along the way and they keep decisions in perspective.

In fact, most often you will incur greater problems by making no decision at all then by making a bad one. Very often a poor decision is the price necessary to gain the information to make a better one next time. Wrong decisions can be fixed, but indecisiveness will damage your organization and reputation beyond repair. But you can’t be stubborn. Stubborn people continue to make the same decision even when the results and evidence shows a different solution is better. A decisive person learns from each decision based on better information and is more likely to hit the mark.

Being seen as a strong, decisive decision maker is a critical factor in establishing leadership credibility. A quick and well thought through decision backed by logic, gut instinct, and taking personal responsibility for the outcome can boost our standing in the eyes of those around us. Appearing indecisive leaves an impression of low confidence and doubt. That impression brings our ability and experience into question.

Decisiveness is both an emotion and a skill. Decisiveness is similar to a feeling of confidence, strength, and assuredness. When you need to be decisive, think back to a time when you felt particularly strong, confident, and decisive. How did you project your voice? How was your posture? How did you walk? Do that and you can trigger the same emotions of decisiveness and actually become more decisive.

More good news—decisiveness is a skill that can be learned and practiced. You’re not stuck with your current ability to decide and act. Confidence is the key to being decisive. When you have confidence, you tend to focus on the future and not agonize over past mistakes. This is powerful. If you give yourself permission to make mistakes, learn from them and move on, you will get stronger every time.

Here are some practical ways to grow your decisiveness:

  • Practice making decisions quickly. Time how long it takes you to make decisions. Minor decisions--what movie to see or restaurant to choose--should be made in thirty seconds to a minute. Bigger decisions should be made in less than five minutes, even if that decision is to do more information gathering so that a decision of action can be made more effectively. The next time you decide what to eat, time yourself and only give yourself a minute to answer. Once you get used to making decisions rapidly you will realize that clear, firm decision making often results in better decisions and more energy.

  • Practice taking a balanced view. Don’t just think about what could go wrong, think about what the benefits of the decision could be. Consider what the worst result could be, and if you can handle that, do it.

  • Engage stakeholders. As you work with others, listen. Work for buy-in and discover issues of which you were unaware. But don’t overplay and try to work too hard for consensus. There comes a time when you quite simply have to move on from the fact- finding and collaboration phase and decide.

  • Own the decision. When you make a decision, speak of it with confidence and move forward with bold action. Don’t flip-flop, and then own the results, good or bad.

  • Get familiar with your internal GPs. As you gain experience, you build up a wealth of knowledge and insight. That fuels your intuition. Trust it. It will allow you to make reliable, quick decisions when you take the time to listen. Your gut instincts will be right more often than you think.

You can be a decisive leader, making clear, timely, wise decisions.

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