See How Proven Successful Leaders are Fearless Decision Makers

See How Proven Successful Leaders are Fearless Decision Makers

Recently I talked with one of my longstanding mentors about how great leaders make decisions. What leadership behavior do they exhibit that enables them to make decisions without fear? The discussion covered all leadership levels. We concluded that the same successful processes and leadership traits are applicable at all decision-making levels, mainly when difficult decisions are made. 

The discussion did not primarily center on details of the process for gathering the necessary information and input, concluding with a decision. Let’s call that blocking and tackling for now. 

It focused more on the emotional side of decision-making and how senior executives can better handle the pressure commensurate with being the ultimate decision-maker. We also discussed how great leaders manage team members who contribute to that final decision. 

How can I make better decisions quickly and effectively?

Sometimes when we need to make critical decisions, the pressure comes from thinking about the potential impact on others if we don’t decide well. Will our customers, market share, employees, or financial viability be adversely affected? It is appropriate that we feel that stressful desire to want to ‘get it right’. Some may call it fear of failure, but it is perfectly natural. For some reason, we humans are wired that way. 

But when we feel that pressure, sometimes we take much longer to work through our indecision, making it even more difficult to ‘pull the trigger’.

This article explores ways to navigate the typical emotional barriers and fear faced by those who have leadership responsibility and must make difficult decisions. Be encouraged that these tools can help you calm the water while making decisions.  Let’s explore some tested ways to do it. 

Perhaps a place to start is to look at ways to strengthen our decision-making muscles and for those around us. As fearless decision-makers do, here are four ways to approach your more complex decisions emotionally and operationally.


Should I take my emotions out of decision-making?

Sometimes we struggle with making decisions because we are concerned about how others will react to that decision’s outcome. Will they judge whether or not it works precisely the way I thought it should or the way they expected? In short, perhaps we are overly concerned about what ‘people will think’.

Allow me to create a different critical context here. When we innately worry about what others will think, we are unintentionally pretending that we reasonably have the potential to make every decision perfectly all the time. But we don’t. That kind of perfection is not possible. So perhaps one way to take some of that pressure off is to admit that you are not going to make all decisions perfectly all the time. 

To be practical, we can’t entirely remove the pressure that comes with making decisions, but we can put it in its proper perspective. So, let’s move forward and do the best we can, knowing that it will not always be perfect.

How important is the ‘decision’ itself?

The second technique that we should explore, I believe, is a far more powerful tool when making an important decision. I must give credit to one of my mentors here. I can’t talk about this without talking about him. Jim Middleton was a longstanding mentor of mine while he was the CEO of USAA Life Insurance Company in San Antonio, Tx. He had a tremendous impact on my career. 

When I was learning the approach to leadership responsibility and making critical decisions, I would occasionally call Jim. He would remind me of something that completely changed how I viewed the decision-making process. He would say, “Dave, the decision-making process is the front end and the shortest part of all that has to happen before you can achieve a successful outcome.” 

Let’s break down what Jim meant here. He says that a successful outcome is the fundamental objective of any decision, not the decision itself. And, it is the shortest part of the overall process of getting to success. 

So, once you make the decision, the real work begins. When you start executing the plan kicked off by the decision is when the learning begins. Then you can start discovering and adapting to what you need to change to succeed. These are always changes you couldn’t know when you were in the decision-making process. Knowing this helps us put ‘the decision’ or starting point in its proper context. Success is usually defined by all the more minor adaptations, changes, and mini-decisions executed along the way.

This concept is fundamental, so I want to provide a view of this from a different angle. Renowned business author Jim Collins wrote on this topic in his book, “Good to Great”. I will paraphrase his point. Success requires that you have a plan, but you can’t fall in love with that plan. He is saying that we must immediately be prepared to question and adapt what we are doing to changes and new information discovered during the execution process of any plan. 

That makes the ‘decision’ far less critical. So, the best thing to do, even if you don’t have all the information and you’re not sure that it’s the perfect decision, is to go ahead and make the decision. Get started and expect changes to present themselves. That is where success begins, and meaningful work gets done to achieve a successful outcome. 

Can disciplined management teamwork aid the decision-making process?

Next, let’s talk about some tips you can use immediately that more effectively utilize teams to gather information for a pending decision. 

Sometimes a leader’s ‘title’ can get in the way of open communication in any meeting. Here is what I mean. You call your managers together to provide ideas and information for an important decision. But are they comfortable enough to share all they know and may be thinking? As a young leader, I did this poorly until a mentor coached me out of it. 

Before my meetings, I would prepare by thinking about the objective and the potential content that I wanted to be explored by the group. That is good. But I would open the meeting by being the first to share my thoughts, thinking that would get the discussion going. It often did just the opposite. 

Some team members saw my method of opening the meeting in one of two ways. Perhaps I had already decided what to do and just wanted their ratification? If they were thinking that way, I would never hear any new ideas. Or they were intimidated from speaking because they might not have put much thought into the topic before the meeting as they perceived I had. So, they didn’t want to be perhaps embarrassed. 

Remember that they respect your position but also do not want to appear out of place. Both unspoken mindsets inhibit open communication and sharing of ideas that the process needs. You need to hear what they can offer. 

So how do you open the gates of communication in these important meeting? Here are a few tips that work.

  • After introducing the topic. Ask someone in the group to share their thoughts first. If you do this at every meeting, all participants will tend to come into your sessions more prepared, anticipating that you may ‘call on them’. That is also good.
  • Make a point of trying to get everyone to engage. Some folks are naturally quiet and need you to draw them out by asking them to speak. At some point, they will become more comfortable.
  • Hold your thoughts until the end of the meeting.
  • Before you close the meeting, summarize by not just covering the information shared but also recognizing, in an appreciative way, who shared it. Let them leave the meeting energized.
  • Intentionally tell your team that you understand and expect that they will make adjustments and that you look forward to the adaptations they suggest and implement once things start. You will help ease the pressure they may be feeling.

I have seen this done well for years and have observed many benefits. Leaders get better quality input before making decisions. And the team members, most of whom were going to be involved in the subsequent implementation after the decision, are better prepared to take action and are fully engaged. Once the project begins, those managers and leaders are more comfortable coming forward quickly to discuss the needed changes and adaptations.

These techniques will help you achieve the successful outcome you desire.

Should I make decisions by group consensus?

This fourth and last item seems obvious. I hesitated about whether I would address it, but I still see this often enough that I decided to include it.

Tough decisions should not be made by committee. If you are responsible for a segment of your business or the entire business, certain levels of decision-making must rest only with you. That goes with the territory of the executive position that you have. You know that. 

I’m not saying that you don’t gather information from different levels, as addressed earlier in this article. There is a point, however, at which you tell your team, “Okay, I’ve made the decision, and here it is. We are now ready to go to the execution phase.” This statement will give your team confidence because it clarifies what their role has been up to this point; advise, not decide. It also transitions from the ‘debate period’ and starts the ‘action phase’. Your team will appreciate this clarity and come out of the gate strong.

To Summarize:

Put the initial decision in its proper perspective. Encourage open and frank communication from your teams before and after the decision. Let decisions be made at the correct level by the person with responsibility. And remember, success is achieved in appropriate execution and adaptation, not in the decision itself.

To conclude: 

My mentors, on several occasions early in my career, held my hand and supported me through some tough decisions. They taught me that fearless decision-making was less about leadership style and more about discipline. And I am so grateful to them for getting me through those barriers when I needed it, with the knowledge of the discipline that has stood the test of time. They helped me develop the courage to lead with confidence. 

You can do that too. Perhaps these tips will help. Take the pressure off yourself. Engage the best and the brightest of your team and enjoy your accomplishments together.

I enjoy talking over scenarios like this topic, so if you are ready to have a conversation with me, click below for a free session. 


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