By Ian Sampson
So much of leadership is really about providing usable direction to followers. Followers yearn for a leader who can point them in the right direction. Leaders do a lot of other things as well, but providing direction is foundational and fundamental. Much of managing is about making decisions on how to get to the right place; leadership is about making decisions on the direction.
Leaders need to set direction and they need to be ready, able and willing to make decisions that give effect to or support the direction chosen. Leaders might choose to make theses decisions alone. However, in my experience, decisions (particularly directional decisions) are often best made with the advice, counsel, shared wisdom and experience of others.
On the other hand, misleaders stand out in stark contrast to this model for the ways they do not make, do make or unmake decisions. Here are some examples of misleading conduct in decision-making processes.
I have worked with many leaders during my career. Those at the top of their organisations often tend to have one of two basic personality types. In Myers-Briggs terms they are either introverts (I) or extroverts (E); they either gather data on the basis of senses (S) or intuition (N); they make decisions through feelings (F) or thinking (T) and they relate to the world through judgments (J) or perceptions (P). Whilst there are 16 basic combinations, in my experience CEOs in particular have tended to either be ISTJ or ENTJ. While each has strengths and weaknesses, the key weakness of ISTJ occurs where they want to gather more and more data as a way of avoiding actually making a decision.
Former US General and Secretary of State Colin Powell says that leaders who can get somewhere in the probability range of 40-70% confidence need to be ready to make a decision on the basis of what their gut is telling them. His point is that waiting until we are 100% sure about every last detail often leads to paralysis by analysis. Interestingly, corporate legal standards wittingly or unwillingly promote this paralysis by retrospectively examining every detail in decisions that go wrong and lead to adverse financial consequences and then demanding a fall guy.
But this kind of approach also means that many opportunities are missed.
It also creates huge amounts of angst and frustration for staff. They often see that the project they have slaved on has done well, considered the alternatives, proposed a preferred alternative, considered the significant risks, pointed to the best implementation plan and led to a final recommendation which just needs sign off. And then the process stalls and ultimately gets derailed by the CEO or Board prevarication to the point where the opportunity is lost.
Good leaders who genuinely can’t make a decision on an important matter need to deal with whatever needs to be done to get a decision, usually by examining processes and not by delving deeper into content. They also need to give personal, prompt and factual information for those involved so that followers can focus on the issues and not fantasize about the shortcomings of their leaders.
Some years ago I was a member of a small team looking at an opportunity to expand a long-established product into a new national market. Success depended on a change of government policy and this created a lot of uncertainty in the minds of the board. We enthusiastically did the project work to show that a new plant could be built and operated cost effectively, raw materials secured and end products distributed, all to achieve corporate profit targets. The capital case for the new plant required board sign off, which after many months of toing and froing was eventually denied.
Sometime later we learned that the Board’s stated concern was a disagreement with our assessment about the risk of changing government policy. In retrospect it wasn’t a bad decision, as changing government policy was a real risk, even though it did become more favorable. But their real reason for rejecting the case was mistrust that our projections of market price were right. The Board chose not to offer any opportunity for dialogue or to commission further investigation of their concerns. Instead we just had silence and inactivity and eventually advice by a very indirect route that the project would not be approved. As things panned out, the project would have handsomely met all the corporate targets.
The point of the story is not that leaders should do silly things that damage shareholders’ interests; rather, leaders need to give their people space and engage with them to deal with the real concerns.
In the same league as not making decisions is the misleading practice of making impulsive decisions. Most often this occurs when misleaders work without a decision making framework, or they make their decisions in a vacuüm, paying no or insufficient attention to the context for the decision.
This is where the other dominant Myers-Briggs personality called ENTJ often operates. These are outgoing leaders who talk to think. They pride themselves on their superior intellectual abilities, which they translate into a god-like ability to make instant decisions on the basis of their intuition.
I once worked with such a leader who prided himself on his ability to make quick studies of even the most complex situations and people problems. As judged by his subordinates his record of decision making success rate was average at best. As judged by his Board, he was eventually removed.
This is an interesting style of misleadership because, when practiced to extremes, it often also wraps in a form of conduct where values as stated are not congruent with values in action. This in turn conveys the appearance of lack of integrity, which is probably not surprising.
Misleaders who make snap decisions often do so without a framework to anchor and stabilize their whole thinking process. Whilst they love the illusion that snap decision making creates spontaneity, dynamism and the ability to respond in complex situations, for followers it creates a world of capriciousness, inconsistency, illogically and lack of alignment with stated purpose and direction.
The third area of misleading decision making conduct occurs when decisions get unmade. We all know that decisions sometimes need to be changed in the light of altered circumstances or new information. But there is a particularly pernicious type of misleading: changing decisions at the will of the misleader. This often occurs where egos are involved, where control rather than commitment rules, etc.
A while ago I worked for a business that is part of a larger holding company. The I.T. folk in the subsidiary came up with a systems solution that provided all that the clients wanted. It was to be supplied by the vendor with the best price, the shortest lead times and the best support arrangements. Right at the last gasp the MD of the holding business decreed that the decision must not proceed. It emerged sometime later that the M.D. of the holding company had had a bad personal experience with the IT supplier’s MD some years before. There was no way that the MD was going to ever give them business again, no matter that it was in the shareholders’, clients’, employees’ and management’s best overall interests.
Other posts in the “Misleading Conduct” series