How Great Leaders Make Big Decisions

One Way street signs

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.  

  1. 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.  
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.  

Closing

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.

How Leaders Make Better Decisions

Business planning and decision conceptual image

Should you take the promotion? Should you hire or fire a team member? Should the organization go in a new direction? Should you improve your teamwork? These are common decisions leaders have the responsibility to make on a daily basis. And while they vary in terms of magnitude, they all require some form of discernment. After all, each of them could have a significant impact on both the present and the future.

One of the most important skills for leaders to develop is discernment in order to make better decisions. While this seems obvious and easy, turns out decision making is tough. Some research suggests we make as many as 35,000 decisions every day. While it’s hard to imagine the number is that high, “If leaders make the small daily decisions correctly, it makes the bigger decisions much easier.”

“If leaders make the small daily decisions correctly, it makes the bigger decisions much easier.”

In studying the best leaders on the planet to write Building the Best, it turns out they use strategies and tactics to help them discern and make the right small decisions more often. If you want to mimic or learn from them, here are a few of my favorites:

Transfer Ownership

With the NFL football season right around the corner, Bill Belichick has some interesting strategies for making successful decisions. One of my favorites is allowing his team’s work ethic, competitiveness, and results to make the decisions for him about who starts and who sits.

Belichick gathers his team at the beginning of training camp and shows them a blank depth chart. He tells his team, “I don’t make the depth chart; you guys make the depth chart.” 

By making it clear to your team that they are actually in control of the decisions, you’ll transfer ownership of the decisions to where it should reside in the first place. 

The 40-70 Rule

In our virtual leadership workshops, I coach leaders to leverage Colin Powell’s 40-70 Rule when making a decision, then running it through both the short and long-term ramifications. 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. 

The art of this rule is using both your intuition, experience, expertise, and also the priorities of short vs. long-term ramifications. The 40-70 Rule is a powerful strategy to get comfortable with making smarter decisions before it’s too late. 

Uncomfortable Pause to Wait for Rational Thinking

One of the most significant mistakes leaders make is allowing decisions to be made solely based on emotion. Emotional decisions are made swiftly and are reactive. While this can be useful when there’s immediate danger, it’s almost always a poor method over making business decisions.  

Leaders embrace the responsibility of making big decisions, but they’re never made only with emotions.

Removing all emotion from a decision isn’t possible. In fact, I’ve seen emotions lead to a long-overdue decision. Instead of trying to remove all emotions, a better strategy is to acknowledge your emotions. Pay attention to your feelings and how they may be impacting your thoughts. Then, embrace an uncomfortable pause and elevate your rational thinking by listing out the actual pros and cons so you can make the best decision possible.  

Seek Wise Perspectives

Someone has to own the process and make the decisions, but rarely do great leaders make decisions on their own. Almost every great leader I have interviewed surrounds themselves with a trusted inner circle who helps guide their decision-making process. 

Most of the time, this inner circle includes a professional coach, a mentor with more experience, a spouse, and/or colleagues.  

As your decisions get larger, be sure you have a similar group of people to help you think logically and from all angles. 

Consider the Worst Outcome Not the Best

I have written at length about how the best leaders are optimistic and have an intense desire to win. This means more often than not, they are thinking about all the good things that will happen as a result of their decision, not the alternative.

To counteract this, an effective strategy when making a decision is to write down the worst possible outcome of a decision. My experience has been that the worst possible outcome is rarely catastrophic. Most decisions aren’t life or death.

As long as your intentions are in the best interest of the greater good and not to serve your self-interests, considering the worst outcome will free you up to make the best decision possible.

Closing

Our days are filled with decisions, both big and small. Lean into the discernment process by leveraging some of these strategies to set you and your team up for success.

I am working on doing a better job of engaging with readers of the Building the Best Newsletter on LinkedIn. If you see this, do me a favor and answer this question in the comments below.

What strategies do you use, or have you seen other great leaders use to make great decisions?

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About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping improve the performance of struggling managers. 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.

What Bad Leaders Consistently Get Wrong About Discipline

One of your direct reports disregards a rule. What do you do?

Do you let it slide because they are a top performer? Do make excuses for them because they might not know better? Do you fire them to send a message to your team? 

It all comes down to discipline, and not in the way you’re probably thinking.

Most leaders think of discipline as a negative. In reality, discipline is what you do for someone not to someone. My company LearnLoft defines discipline in the Elevate Others Leadership Report as “to promote standards in order for an individual to choose to be at their best.”

Discipline allows you to set high standards for what’s expected and hold people accountable to the choices they decide to make every day. As former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell once said,

“The essence of leadership is holding your people to the highest possible standard while taking the best possible care of them.”

He’s right, and he exposes a fundamental truth that the best leaders understand about discipline: It’s essential to set a really high bar and to care.

If you want to be a more disciplined leader, follow these three steps: 

1. Focus on your relationships.

If the quality of your relationships are continually getting better, discipline becomes much more comfortable. The vast majority of leaders with whom I have the opportunity to coach in the Ultimate Leadership Coaching Program overestimate the strength of the relationships with individuals on their team. I coach them to evaluate their relationships based on these four keys factors:

  • Bond of Mutual Trust
  • Amount of Enjoyment
  • Quality of Communication
  • Shared Values and Commonalities

Like any relationship, the key for it to grow and strengthen is your most limited resource: time. Carve out time in your busy schedule to invest in these relationships. 

2. Set clear standards and gain buy-in.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson University’s championship-winning football coach, has a mantra: “Best is the standard.” A standard defines what good looks like. I’ve come to realize that the very best leaders don’t just determine what good looks like–they define what great looks like. 

While only you can determine what great looks for your team, one common standard all leaders have to decide upon is how their weekly team meetings are run. A good standard for a team meeting is everyone shows up on time and isn’t distracted during the time you are together. A great standard is everyone shows up on time, and each team member comes prepared to share three things:

  • What they did last week to move the needle
  • What they are working on this week
  • Where they need help

Think long and hard about what great looks like for your team. Once you’ve determined that, communicate it as clearly as you can to your people. That’s how you gain their buy-in. If you fail to attain their buy-in, your standard won’t be met very often.

3. Create a culture of accountability.

Now, the hard part starts. You must hold yourself and the entire team accountable for meeting and exceeding your standards.

I define accountability in my upcoming book Building the Best as “the obligation of an individual or an organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them and disclose the results in a transparent manner.” The key word is “obligation.”

You have an obligation to yourself and your team to create a culture of accountability so you help build the best people you possibly can. Get in the habit of inspecting what you expect so the entire team knows how interested and involved you are. When a team member fails, meets or exceeds the standard, have direct dialogues to share disapproval, acknowledgment or praise.

And above all: Never lose sight of the enormous responsibility and opportunity you have to help elevate others.

What’s Your Leadership Style? Join over 40k leaders and discover how well you are leveraging love and discipline as a leader and find out your current leadership style for free.

About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company which exists to turn managers into leaders and create healthier places to work. John was named one of LinkedIn’s 2017 Top Voices in Management & Workplace and was awarded the 2017 Readership Award by Training Industry.com. John is also the author the upcoming book Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Successand host of the “Follow My Lead” Podcast, a show that transfers stories and best practices from today’s leaders to the leaders of tomorrow. You follow him on instagram @johngeades.