In this series of blogs, we will look at the qualities and skills that make great leaders. These are traits that are reflected in leaders throughout history, and they often produce highly successful results. Crucially, as these character-traits are qualitative they are difficult to pin down. These blogs aim to illuminate what is behind such qualities.
Week 1 — Decision-Making
Every day, we all make decisions about some sort of issue in our lives. Mostly, these decisions have little or no consequence — for example, the consequence of making the decision to snooze your alarm twice in the morning might only mean you have to Mo Farah your way to the station — something relatively unimportant and inconsequential.
Leaders, however, don’t have it so easy. The decisions they have to make often are important and are consequential.
Great leaders demonstrate a particularly strong aptitude for decision-making, and these types of decisions are varied. Sometimes, for example, it’s not about making the right decision, but about just making a decision at all.
The best leaders also know when they need input from the team to aid the process. This is something we will cover in a future week — the skill of good delegation. Great leaders surround themselves with advisers, experts, and people they can trust to do a better job than themselves given the circumstances. Leaders should know that they need to be able to access a constant and multitudinous flow of information in order to achieve what they are working towards. This flow is only possible with a top-notch team, and making the goal a reality is only possible with a top-notch decision-maker.
As I mentioned however there are different ways of making decisions — different ways of coming to a conclusion. As Brent Gleeson, a former Navy Seal, has written for Forbes, there are four basic decision-making styles leaders can use:
Style 1: Command
When might a command-style leader be most effective? Let me give you an example:
Amanda P is driving to work; it’s 8.30am on a drizzly Thursday in November. With traffic at a standstill, Amanda is having serious doubts that she will get to the office by 9 to meet with a big potential client. Amanda P has two options: turn off the main road, make the short journey to a nearby pay and display car park and sprint to the office — to walk the distance would take half an hour; or stick out the traffic in the hopes it might ease soon and she’d comfortably park in the grounds of the office as usual. Amanda has a very small window of time to make her decision — and there is nobody else of her calibre in the office to delegate the potential client to. It’s 8.35am already.
Amanda makes a command-type decision to find the pay and display car park. She simply cannot take the risk of the traffic making her late, and the downsides of having to pay the car park fee and sprinting are far fewer than losing this client.
She arrives at the office at 8.58am, her feet soaking, her hair in the fashion of a bird’s nest, but in time to greet her client and explain why she was in a rush.
Amanda’s success was due to her quick-to-action, self-guided decision-making.
Style 2: Collaborative
In contrast to command, collaborative decision-making assumes there is sufficient time and means to request the insight and expertise of the team. In business, leaders should, if possible, gather evidence from sources who don’t necessarily agree with them — in fact, better decisions often come from reasoned arguments and evaluation by people who look at problems and solutions in different ways.
Johnny M has a date. It’s something he’s been both looking forward to and worrying about simultaneously for over a fortnight, and he’s now in the stage of milk nausea as he decides what he’s going to wear.
He calls his friends over to help him decide. Kevin hates the thought of wearing a t-shirt to a date (“are you taking her to play rugby?”), while Jenny (I’m aware Jenny and Johnny are similar names; I like to think that’s why they’re friends) thinks that not dressing up too much would put Johnny at ease.
Johnny must hold his own outfit preferences against the preferences and scrutiny of his friends, whose opinion he values. He weighs up his options, and makes a reasoned decision to wear a t-shirt, but with an open shirt over the top.
Despite forgetting where first gear is when driving his date to the restaurant, Johnny makes a great first impression and enjoys the night.
Style 3: Consensus
Consensus-based decision-making involves a leader gathering their team and the whole team voting. As the votes are counted, decision is made according to which option gains the most votes. As Brent Gleeson notes, in business this can be a time consuming method of reaching an outcome. Nevertheless, a consensus-type decision can be very effective when it affects the entire team, and it would be politically prudent to involve the voices of every member. Also, crucially, consensus decisions are owned by the people — if they feel as if they own it, they are much more likely to make it work.
Here’s an example:
Eric N’s long suffering wife is sick of his shoddy cooking and has phoned ahead to ask him to order a takeaway for them and the kids that night. Eric knows that if he chooses wisely his wife will forgive his half-hearted attempts to cook, and the kids will behave knowing they’ve got something yummy on the way. Eric has been in this situation before — last month he came home on a Saturday night with five steaming hot curries for the family only to a chorus of “urghhhh” and “I hate rice” from the kids and a disapproving sigh from his wife. The stakes are high.
So Eric narrows his options to two: fish and chips and pizza. (It’s a once-a-month treat, please don’t judge Eric and his wife as bad parents — cut the poor guy some slack). To make sure everyone gets a say, he first asks his kids what they’d prefer and, before he even mentions the idea of fish he’s overwhelmed by 3 whoops of joy at the thought of pizza. 3 votes down. He then calls his wife and she agrees — in any case pizza would mean less washing up (for Eric).
He makes the final call based on what most of the family would prefer — every voice was heard.