How Great Leaders Make Big Decisions
We all make bad decisions. Trust me, even the most level-headed exceptional leaders not only have made poor decisions in their career, but they will make them in the future. What matters when it comes to decision-making isn’t necessarily the outcome; it’s having a method or strategy to rely on before making significant decisions that matters most.
Before you jump on my case in the comments, please let me explain by saying the outcome isn’t always the most important factor. In the vast majority of cases, we have little control over the final result, but what we do have control over is the process and effort we put in that produces the outcome. So the more significant the decision, the better our decision-making method should be.
Take Paul, the CEO of a medium-sized business. When company growth sputtered, he began exploring the possibility of acquiring another company to fuel future growth. In one of our coaching conversations, he said, “I am going to go with my gut on this decision and move forward with the acquisition.” Since he didn’t have prior knowledge or experience in making acquisitions, I found it strange to rely on his gut.
So I passed along some wisdom to help him think differently since it affected so many people.
“Great leaders don’t stop at just communicating the final decision; they articulate how and why they got to the final decision to gain maximum buy-in from the team.”
See, by definition, a decision is a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration. It comes from the Latin word, meaning “to cut off.” So in Paul’s case, if he couldn’t articulate how and why he reached the decision of acquiring another company to his management team or the employees at either company, the likelihood of its future success would be low. Because at the end of the day, it would be the people in both companies that would produce the results, not the decision itself.
Proven Methods to Make Big Decisions
If you have a big decision, like taking a new job, buying a company, getting married, or hiring someone, run it through one of these simple methods to be more confident that you made the right decision.
Method 1: 3 Steps “Before You Decide”
Decisions come in all different sizes. Some research suggests we make as many as 35,000 decisions every day. Matt Confer of Abilitie has spent a significant amount of time and energy studying what organizational leaders do right and wrong when making decisions. In a recent episode of the Follow My Lead Podcast, Confer told me, “The best leaders get buy-in from above them and below them by sharing why they are making the decisions they are making.”
For any leader to describe “why” they are making a decision, Confer shared a 3 step method that leaders can use that enhances the way they come up with the final decision.
- Challenge the Constraint – This is all about thinking outside of the box and not just solving the problem in the fastest way possible. This is a strategic step to think differently about the decision in front of you.
- Embrace the Pre-Mortem – It’s human nature to decide or contemplate making a decision, and all one thinks about is envisioning success. While thinking positively about an outcome is never wrong, an essential question to embrace is, “If this decision fails, what are five ways it would fail miserably?” Thinking about how failure would happen will open up your eyes to problem areas that still need to be addressed.
- Check the Basics – The more complex a decision, the more likely a small essential detail is missed, which can cause a big decision to fail. As the great Kobe Bryant used to say, “never get bored with the basics.”
Confer’s 3-step method of ” before you decide” has a whiteboard session written all over it to help make your significant decision. If done correctly, it will provide you with clarity about moving forward or put the brakes on a big decision.
Method 2: The 40-70 Rule
In our virtual leadership workshops, I coach leaders to leverage Colin Powell’s 40-70 Rule when making a decision. If you aren’t familiar with the 40-70 Rule, Powell says, “Every time you face a tough decision, you should have no less than forty percent and no more than seventy percent of the information you need to make the decision.”
If you decide with less than forty percent of the information, you are taking a wild guess, but if you wait until you have over 70% of the information, you are making it too late.
If you have all the data, it’s no longer a decision; it’s a forgone conclusion.”
The art of this rule is using both your intuition, experience, expertise and also the priorities of short vs. long-term ramifications. Thus, the 40-70 Rule is a powerful strategy to get comfortable with making more intelligent decisions before they are needed most.
Method 3: Remove the Emotion and Decide in the Morning
Not all decision-making methods have to be complicated. But just because it’s not complex doesn’t mean it’s easy. Many poor decisions have been made because of emotions and timing.
I am obsessed with Dr. Susan David’s quote: “Emotions are data, not directives. We get to choose who we want to be; our emotions don’t.”
Science has shown that we make worse decisions when we are emotional and when we have decision fatigue. So instead of ignoring your emotions, embrace the uncomfortable pause, sleep on it, and then decide in the morning when you have lowered the feelings and have a fresh brain.
If you happen to be like Paul in our opening story and you like making decisions by your gut, challenge yourself to articulate how and why you are making it. If you aren’t like Paul and you love every punch of data you can get before you make a decision, lean into the 40-70 rule or the “3 Steps Before You Decide.”
Regardless, all I ask is that you have the courage to make the decision and commit to it. Part of a leader’s job is to make significant decisions, and you are just the person to do it.
What methods do you use to make significant decisions?
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About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.