Thoughts on Leadership: How Important is Decision-Making?

by Moya K. Mason

Many people talk about the decline of the work ethic. In reality, it is not the work ethic which has declined. Rather, it is leaders who have failed. Leaders have failed to instill vision, meaning, and trust in their followers. They have failed to empower them. Regardless of whether we're looking at organizations, government agencies, institutions, or small enterprises, the key and pivotal factor needed to enhance human resources is leadership.Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, 1985


Throughout history, the world has seen many good leaders who possessed a variety of attributes that made them great. One only has to think of such people as Ghandi, Alexander the Great, and Prince Llywelyn of Wales. It would be nice to think that we all have something of the right stuff to make a difference in the workplace or in the world. As the Chinese philosopher Lao-tsu said,

To lead people, walk beside them . . .
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear;
and the next, the people hate . . .
When the best leader's work is done the people say,
"We did it ourselves!"

Many Leaders Use Five Key Skills:

  1. The ability to accept people as they are, not as you would like them to be.
  2. The capacity to approach relationships and problems in terms of the present rather than the past.
  3. The ability to treat those who are close to you with the same courteous attention that you extend to strangers and casual acquaintances.
  4. The ability to trust others, even if the risk seems great.
  5. The ability to do without constant approval and recognition from others.

And so it goes that different people lead differently, but there is a set of attributes that most good leaders share, and includes an ability to organize; a desire to succeed; to bring forth a shared vision; drive and determination; problem-solving ability; and the all-important decision-making ability. What would Alexander the Great have been without this attribute?

The object of this essay is to get management to begin thinking or rethinking their ideas concerning one aspect of leadership: the decision-making process. As managers, we are also leaders, who must have a sense of vision for the future, an orientation toward action, and a facility for persuasion -- we must be able to motivate our colleagues into action within a healthy and happy work environment, and part of that must come from a projection of decisiveness. As Michael Novak points out in Executives Must Be AIlowed to Execute:

Money managers are learning the hard way that their bread is buttered by corporate managers with vision, steadiness, talent, and guts - in short, with what used to be called "the right stuff". That means character, wedded to a precise talent, a talent for figuring out the right thing to do and for doing it the right way and at the right time (Novak 1997,22).

Or as Sal Marino says, there are many people who think and plan in organizations, but very few who have the ability to move cognitive processes into executable phases (Marino 1998,26). Isn't that the difference between mediocre managers and leaders? The ability to make decisions in a systematic way by following a model, and being aware of the stakeholders in every scenario is part of the process. What are some of the skills needed to become a good decision-maker? And how can we build upon those skills to become better leaders?

Skills of a Good Decision-Maker

I think the first and most important component of decision-making is self- confidence. If you are confident in your mental capabilities and how you envision the world around you, then you will have no problem in analyzing a situation and making a decision you can stand by for better or worse. That leads into the second element, the ability to be analytical. The value of analysis cannot be overstated because it allows a person to systematically break down a situation and see its individual parts for what they are, thereby, providing a thorough overview. Thirdly, a major part of decision-making is the ability to think critically. The great value of critical thought can be traced all the way back to the philosopher Socrates (b.399 B.C.) of Athens, who advocated that critical thought and self-reflection are major components of what it is to be human.

Finally, the last two attributes of being a decisive person are understanding the value of research and the ability to manage conflict, within yourself and your belief structure, and with and amongst others. One must be able to 'nip things in the bud' before they grow and turn into invaluable and possibly destructive forces within the workplace. All these components make up decisive behaviour techniques and flow out of an overall orientation toward action, and an assumption of risk. These components do encourage individual development through self-awareness, as well as skill acquisition and improved competence.

To clarify, this writer is not advocating that managers must take responsibility for everything going on in the workplace, and it is okay to "decentralize decision- making and rely on decision teams rather than solely on ourselves" (Novak 1997,24). However, this focuses on the different kinds of decisions required by organizations; who should be involved; and how to make the best decision in a complex situation. Regardless of team support, when all is said and done, we must be the ones who step up to the platform and make things happen.

Talking about his book The Leadership Engine, Noel M. Tichy says that good leadership is a lot like good parenting; both need the systematic investment of time and what he calls "a teachable point of view" (HRFocus Jan. 1998,5). He insists that you must have the edge to make the important yes/no decisions: the edge or the courage. Courage is the missing link that puts the concept of taking risks and having the guts to be decisive into play and transforms them into a reality, often, in the face of great opposition.

How to Put it All Together

Possessing the right set of attributes and having the courage to make a decision, does not mean the work is all done. You should have your own decision-making process which must take the communication network, the staff, and the stakeholders into consideration. There must be a set of steps to incorporate the above elements into a process. Of course, this can be tailored differently for each scenario, but it might work something like this: Research a situation thoroughly -- analyze all the components -- think of all the people who will be effected by your decision -- think everything through using innovative and strategic thought processes -- have the self-confidence to make a short or long term decision and the fortitude to stand by it -- communicate it to the staff -- and have the ability to overcome the conflict that may arise from the decision. Never forget evaluation.

For example, it could be that after many in-depth meetings and evaluative analyzes by decision teams, there is still no consensus, no judgement made about whether or not the library should continue to collect a multitude of government documents in paper form even though the latest and most-up-to-date information can be found at the government websites posted on the Internet. One must think about the implications for the library in terms of additional workstations needed to handle the barrage of inquiries if the print sources were phased out; the possibility that computer hardware can fail; and the interminable worry that websites are not static, but rather, forever fluctuating or lost in the sea of electronic bits and bytes. In addition, there is the consideration of how this move would effect the library budget allocated for acquisitions in the government documents section, and what message you are giving to the public concerning the direction the library's policy on collection development is taking.

In addition, what of the stakeholders involved? Is the staff able to navigate the Internet -- how quickly can they navigate around the millions of documents, broken links, and the reality of slow modems? Perhaps they will need training to help them get used to the system; but who will pay for it? What about the most important stakeholders in the scenario, the public? Will they be able to function without help from a staff member? We cannot and should not assume that everyone knows how to use computers or have even heard of the Internet. Still, these people may be in desperate need of the government information located on sites. How will they access it? Will they receive training? Who will pay for it? Many more questions can come to mind, but the point is, no decision is an easy one, yet, someone has to have the fortitude to decide definitively about certain things, and live with the decisions.

The Myths of Leadership


We can build upon these skills by first being consciously aware of the steps we travel through on our quest for the right solutions to both short and long term problems or situations. There is also the possibility of putting together workshops to learn the concepts, experience the components that make up the process, and even practice some of them in experimental scenarios based on making decisions. And of course, facilitation of a mentorship program geared towards the development of new leaders, is a great use of an organization's time. All of these will bring us a lot closer to our personal desire of becoming powerful, insightful leaders of the future. How important is decision-making? I will let the reader be the judge of that.

Related Papers

Library Management Meeting Prototype
What is a Learning Organization?
Debate Over Coaching and Mentoring in Today's Workplace


HRfocus. January 1998. Interview: Revving up to Lead.

Marino, Sal. January 19, 1998. The Challenge of Change. IW.

Novak, Michael. Fall 1997. Executives Must Be Allowed to Execute. Directors & Boards.

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