Friday, June 10, 2011

Leadership is ‘deciding’

LeadersLeadership, like innovation, is much discussed but seldom understood.  What makes a leader?  Ideas?  Charisma?  The willingness to lead?  The passion to believe?  Derek Sivers, in a wonderful TED talk, says simply that Leaders have Followers (click the picture to watch his examples).

I think that Leaders Decide.

Every day, decisions must be made about how we run our business.  Who will we trust to take on tasks; what conditions govern investment?  What is fair compensation for a valuable contributor; do lab results  justify further development? 

Or, today, Is this single sentence, buried in a contract, important or trivial? It has the potential for mischief, but the investor says he’d never use it that way. Still, he wants the sentence in or he won’t invest.

Accept the condition, or forfeit the money?

I’m realizing how important the quality of decisions, as well as the process that I use to make them and the style that surround the process, defines my leadership in many ways.  It’s not just about making successful choices, it also determines whether people talk with you, trust you, follow you, believe in you.

I met with a business coach yesterday (bewilderingly, one supplied by the UK government to encourage job creation in micro-businesses).  We had a good talk around one question: What are you good at; what can you be better at?

I’m good with ‘hard’ skills: plans, numbers, analysis, budgets.  Existential things that are what they are, can be manipulated as fixed components, and that can be connected to reveal truths and accomplish goals.

I’m worse with ‘soft’ skills: negotiating, persuading, presenting, arbitrating. These are subjective things that are what they are perceived to be, and that must be formed and fit.  It takes skill and (for me) focused effort to be an open listener, to patiently understand reasons beneath the positions, to create common ground, to build trust despite competing agendas.

Effective decision-making, and good leadership requires both skills: the style and the substance of the process matter.  When I look at my own methods, I find that I move through five steps:

  • Understand:  Take time to understand the question  and the points of view. (Be aware of but don’t give into intuition.)
  • Collaborate:  Talk to people with vested interest and also to outsiders with relevant experience.  (Be aware of but don’t give into personal bias.)
  • Judge:  Take a “time-out” to reflect and choose.  (Take ten minutes of peace: listen to your gut.)
  • Communicate:  State the decision, left vs. right, the reasons, and make peace with the people I disagree with. (Be clear and crisp.)
  • Commit: Move on, and don’t revisit the choice unless the evidence mounts against it. (Lets all act like adults.)

Confident decision-making is not confidence that I have chosen the right path all the way to the endpoint.  It’s confidence that I have chosen the best step towards that goal from my current position; confidence that, once I’m there, I can deal successfully with whatever I find there.

So, if I decide not to take an investment because the conditions are onerous, I am confident both in that choice and that I can find alternatives.  I may not know who, yet, but I know I can.

DeciderIn 2006, Pres W famously called himself “The Decider”, affirming his leadership through his personal responsibility and accountability for his administration’s actions.   But the quality of his decisions were poor, people questioned his biased rationale, and his stubborn policies.  Ultimately, many refused to follow his leadership.

Substance, process, style: thus do decisions define and legitimize leaders.

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