You Have One Primary Job as a Leader

As a leader, your job is to make decisions. There are other things, too, but that is your main job.

Warring against that, possibly, is your fear of making the wrong decision. Rest assured in knowing that there is greater long-term potential harm in not making decisions than there is in making wrong decisions.

So to be an effective leader, try to master the timing of your decisions rather than the criteria for your decisions.

Key Times to Make Decisions

So, when should you make a decision? Here are the four most important times to make a decision:

  • When you see an opportunity you're small enough to pounce on. This is usually an opportunity that the big firm has to study, meet about, appoint a committee, assess the risks, get funding approval, and then build consensus around three times per week for five months. There are significant advantages around scale, but being nimble is not one of them.
  • When your people are looking for direction, which happens when they can't draw a dotted line between what you're asking them to do every day and some larger purpose around which they can rally. The purpose that you articulate and demonstrate is the framework they'll use to make judgment calls about the consistency of your vision and execution. Leaders understand that these times crop up regularly and they embrace them as ideal junctures to speak into a void. These intersections are painful and tense, though, which is why some leaders are terrified...of more opportunities to lead.
  • When you want to fill a vacuum that a bad leader won't leave empty. Let me explain this with a simple statement: evil leaders gain a foothold because they make decisions and not because of the decisions they make. Does that make sense? When you leave a situation "un-decisioned" you're brushing meat tenderizer all over yourself and jumping into a snake pit.
  • When you need to correct a bad decision. This should happen more often than you think, really, because the two biggest dangers in decision making are not making enough decisions and then not correcting the bad ones. So if you are leading, by definition you are making lots of decisions, and you're just bound to make some bad ones. Here's the thing, though: if you get into the habit of correcting your bad decisions quickly, you'll get more comfortable making more decisions in the first place because you've learned that it's not such a big deal to make the wrong one.

If you can concentrate on making decisions around those intersections, you'll have nailed this. And in the process you'll find that the best way to get better at making decisions is to make a lot of them.

Ways to Get Better at Making Decisions

But making lots of decisions is just one way to get better at making better ones. Here are some others:

  • Define the destination before you get there. You'll find that you are better at this if you decide--at the outset--what success will look like, rather than struggling to find a balanced perspective right in the middle of the churn. So don't make a decision too far in advance, but decide on how you will make that decision when the time comes. "If we have landed two significant accounts in this narrow vertical by the end of the year, that'll be a signal that we're on the right track."
  • Understand your tendency and counter it, just a little. In personality theory, we tell people that your primary weakness comes from overusing your primary strength. So if people value your steady, predictable, regular behavior, you'll fail to reach your potential by being too steady, predictable, and regular. Don't change who you are and certainly don't counter it entirely, but do be self-aware. Perfect balance is boring and inhuman--think of your goal more as intentional imbalance.
  • Be careful about surprises. You don't want to think of good leadership as looking at mountains of confusing data and pulling out that surprise insight that changes the world. No, most of the time it looks more like this: "That was smart. I figured he was going to do that. No big surprises, there, and I think that makes sense." You are not a leader because you have better insight--you are a leader because you make decisions. There's a corrollary point here, too: ask around among the people close to the frontlines and they'll usually have the answer!
  • Embrace accountability. If you're searching for a feedback loop to help you make better decisions, you cannot be in denial about the consequences of the decisions that you have made. Blaming others will short circuit that feedback loop and you'll deprive yourself of the opportunity for self improvement. This is even more critical if you welcome the by-product of good leadership: earned respect.

I hope these thoughts help you be a better leader. The math says that most people want a good leader to follow, and being a good leader offers all sorts of job security.

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