No leader wants to be known for making bad decisions nor would they want the people around them to be making bad decisions.  So the question is, how can we begin to make better decisions and lead the people around us to do the same?

One of the things that characterizes leaders is that they are decisive.  That’s often a good thing and is seen as a strength by the people around them.  But if you take a closer look, just about every leader that’s been in a position of leadership for any length of time will have stories about bad decisions they have made; times when they made decisions too quickly, too independently or times when they were flat out wrong.   

The problem for most leaders is that when we make decisions we are often too quick to jump to conclusions.  We pride ourselves on being intuitive.  We rely too heavily on our own expertise or experience and we tend to give too much weight to the small amount of information that is right in front us. Unfortunately the information that’s right in front of us is rarely enough to make a wise decision and we don’t always do the work to learn more.  

No leader wants to be know for making bad decisions nor would they want the people around them making bad decisions.  So the question is, “How can we begin to make better decisions and lead the people around us to do the same?”   

Better decision-making starts with a simple understanding of how we make decisions and then finding ways to offset or challenge our tendencies.  Here are some of the most common mistakes we make as leaders.  

Color blindness

As leaders we try to make everything black and white. We like it when there’s a clear right and wrong. We tend to think about solutions in terms of two options: this or that, yes or no,  do or don’t.   We tend to do this because it saves times and simplifies the process.  

The problems is that most of the decisions we are called to make are not black and white.  They are much more colorful and complex than that. We know that and yet in the busyness of leading (and in the interest of time, or money, or effort) we end up defining our choices too narrowly.  This causes us to miss possible solutions.   We need to find a way to engage (and enjoy) the complexity of the decisions we are called to make.  

Try asking a couple of simple questions.  

  • “What would we do if all of our current options disappeared?”
  • “Has anyone ever made this decision before?  What did they do?  Why?”
  • “Who can we invite from outside (outside the department or outside the organization) to look at this?”

We knew it all along

This is the oldest trick in the book.  This is when we develop an opinion and then go looking for information that supports our conclusion or belief.  We give more weight to the facts that support our opinion, less to those that don’t.  We would like to think that we are immune from this and that we can remain objective.  Easier said than done.  We fool ourselves into thinking this is scientific because we are gathering “data”.     

  • Just for fun, consider the opposite. As an exercise in humility we can force ourselves to consider and even build an argument for the opposite of our instincts.  More than just mental gymnastics this can help us to gain perspective and insight.  
  • At the very least we can consider more than one option simultaneously. This can sometimes slow us down just enough to keep us from bulldozing the people around us.


Related to “We knew it all along” is simple pride.  This is when people think they know more than they really do about the situation or about how the future will unfold.  Unfortunately, pride is almost impossible to see in the mirror.  So… here are a couple things to keep in mind that may help keep pride at bay.

  • Experiment.  Don’t assume that you have the all the answers. Instead, set up some experiments to test your ideas. Run some trials.  Experimenting can be helpful because we are terrible at predicting the future. This gives you a way to discover solutions rather than trying to predict them.
  • Prepare to be wrong.
  • Let someone else decide.  Great leaders empower the people around them by allowing them to make meaningful decisions.  If there’s ever any concern about your making a decision out of pride simply invite someone else to make the decision.

Emotional decisions

We’ve all done it.  It usually happens when stress is high and time is short.  We feel pressure to make the right choice and to do it quickly.  We go back and forth.  We replay the arguments and conversations over and over in our heads. We get all wound up and it keeps us up at night.
The solution here is rarely more information.  What we need here is a little distance.  

  • One practical way that you can create some distance is by inserting some time.  Set a deadline and tell your team, “We don’t want to make a hasty decision here.  Let’s come back together next (insert time: day/week/etc.).  We will make our final decision then.”
  • Another way to create distance is by changing scenery.  Get out of the office.  Go for a walk.  Take the discussion outside.  Meet in another venue.  Do something so that you’re not staring at the same four walls.  Get refreshed, then decide.   
  • When in doubt… and if you must make a decision quickly, be sure to honor your core values.  Difficult decisions are caused by conflicting priorities or values.  Knowing and committing to a few core values that will drive your decisions is a necessity for any successful leader or organization. 

Our decisions will never be perfect, but they can be better. Being mindful of our tendencies can steer us towards the right choice.  Making the right choice at the right moment can make all the difference.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this topic? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. What’s one of the most difficult decisions you’ve had to make as a leader? Why was it difficult?
  4. Share about a time when you have made (or seen) some of these decision-making mistakes.
  5. What were some of the outcomes of those mistakes?
  6. If you could go back what would you do differently?
  7. Of the suggested solutions listed above, which do you think might be most helpful for you to incorporate into your decision-making process?
  8. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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