Wanted: Magic 8 Ball

Magic 8 BallOne of the toughest parts of being a leader is making decisions. There’s the sheer volume of them, and the significance they can hold. There’s the risk of turning small issues into big ones or vice versa; of deciding too quickly or too slowly; of allowing biases to sway us unduly. The list of challenges goes on.

This subject was a module in a workshop I was teaching recently to a group of emerging leaders. The peer wisdom they shared with each other was incredibly rich. I found myself experiencing “docendo discimus,” which is Latin for “by teaching, we learn.” It was a real privilege to be part of this learning and to engage in their distinctions and thoughts.

Our discussion included a framework from MindTools™  which offers a self-assessment about decision-making and divides the process into six steps:

  1. Establishing a positive decision-making environment
  2. Generating potential solutions
  3. Evaluating the solutions
  4. Deciding
  5. Checking the decision
  6. Communicating and implementing

It was powerful to discuss the distinctions of these steps and identify actions for each. In fact, the notion of having a  process was in and of itself a key teaching. A few other key “do’s” included:

  • Know Thyself – Are you someone who relies more on data or more on intuition? Being aware of this is key in understanding your biases, knowing where you’ll get stuck, and importantly, how you need to “sell” your decision to others.
  • Know the Situation – Different situations can call for different styles. Where do you need to be collaborative? Authoritarian?
  • Know What You Don’t Know – ambiguity is always going to be present. Categorizing what you know and what you don’t is one way to narrow in on both the real problem and possible solutions.

A final core lesson can be summed up by this quote from David Mahoney, Jr.: “You’ll never have all the info you need to make a decision. If you did, it would be a foregone conclusion, not a decision.”

A Case Study in Decision-Making: Ben’s Story

Throughout the workshop that day, I found myself thinking of a former coaching client. “Ben” was a divisional CEO, with responsibility for about 70% of his company’s revenue. His 360° revealed that people found him to be brilliant and engaging, yet impetuous. His deep intuition drove his decision-making. Even while he was usually spot on about where the company needed to go, his style put people off. He had a reputation as someone who appeared to make “knee jerk” decisions.

Once Ben began to recognize the impact of this decision-making style on his overall effectiveness, he began to realize that it didn’t matter how good his ideas were or that he was in his position to make decisions if others couldn’t follow him. He had to learn to share more of his thought-process and to hear others out along the way. While this isn’t the path of action for every decision he needs to make, his ability to shift his style not only earned him more respect and engagement from his peers and team, it ultimately earned him a promotion.

Bottom Line

A final part of our conversation in the workshop stemmed around the ability to admit when you’ve made a poor decision. No leader is immune to that. In the words of Mark Twain:

“Good judgment comes from experience. Where does experience come from? Bad judgment.”


Stay up to date with tips and reflections on leadership.

Subscribe to Feed