Decisions, Decisions: at the Core of Leadership?

“Pretty much anyone can muddle along when everything is going swimmingly and according to plan. The time that leaders really earn their pay is when the going gets tough. This is when the real qualities of a leader will out and true leadership gets displayed.” General Lord Dannatt.

Alan Leighton’s (ex Mars, Asda and Royal Mail to name but 3 previous employers) book: “Tough Calls – Making the Right Decisions in Challenging Times” explores the range of decisions that business leaders have to make. He goes on to look at how to make this variety of decisions and then follow them through.

Conveniently packaged into 4 decision types (see below), all decisions are seen as having certain common traits. Amongst these, ‘decisiveness’ is highlighted and by this, the author recognises the need for the decision, once made, to be followed through. The leader must show the tenacity to see things to a conclusion, perhaps in the face of opposition. This is underpinned by a belief in what they are doing and overcoming any resistance through a constant referral to the goal, in a manner that others find attractive and persuasive.

Leighton also makes the point that leaders never get everything right. He estimates a 70% success rate is good going. How the 30% are dealt with is also crucial. Being ‘big’ enough in character to admit the mistake (to others and one’s self) is a key aspect of a good leader, coupled with review, analysis, new judgement formed leading to a (hopefully) better decision.

Bad decision makers are seen as those who never change a decision: not being able to admit that they are wrong. Omnipotent leadership is, at least in my experience, limited to a very small number of practitioners!


Decision Types. 

The Radical Decision

Required when the organisation has lost direction; when something drastic needs to be done to set it back on course. The key to success is to make few large decisions rather than many small ones. Making a decision at all is crucial, even if short of being 100% sure.


The Crisis Decision

When the organisation is hit by a problem outside your control, rapid action is required to implement the decision. Procrastination and too much analysis is not an option: it must be avoided at all costs. Time is often of the essence as the survival of the organisation is at immediate stake. Denial is dangerous – as in the first decision type – being big enough to handle and accept the situation, including outside help, is the leadership test


The Opportunity Decision

Here, using a cool measured approach to consider (usually external) opportunities as they present themselves is key to success. Seen as almost the opposite of the crisis decision, a methodical cool, calm and collected application of resource avoids snap or emotional factors gaining an unbalanced upper-hand. In situations such as acquisitions, this clarity of considered thought wins the day.


The Progress Decision

Where we find the small day to day decisions, that, if taken well, avoid the problems being faced when exercising the first two decision types. Anticipating issues before they arise allows the organisation to ‘ride the wave’. Inevitably, good and bad progress decisions are trickier to spot. The difference tends to rely on the application of a diligent, thought-through approach as opposed to a ‘let’s try it and see’ attitude.

Table 1: Decision Type Matrix













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