Decisions: how hard can it be?


Leaders think, consider and then make decisions. How they think, what they choose to consider and what criteria they use in making decisions color the organization’s entire modus operandi. We need and want leaders to make decisions that are ethical and that have integrity. We want from leaders decisions in which they believe and of which they can be proud.

Added on 06 May 2016 by Roger Delves

ethical leadership

In a business world which is increasingly complex and ambiguous, our leaders’ success and legacy is often determined by the nature and quality of the decisions they make. So, more so than ever before we need to have and to develop leaders who understand how to make decisions which go beyond the situationally contingent and provide team members and stakeholders with the confidence that quality decision making can create.

When it comes to the evaluation of leaders and leadership success, it is the quality of decision-making that often distinguishes the superb from the merely adequate – so decision making in the world of the leader is freighted with a special significance, because what hangs on the decision can be life changing or career threatening. How do the best get it right so often? What can we learn from the decision-making approach of these explorers and adventurers in the VUCA landscape within which we must all survive and attempt to thrive?

For many parents, one of the joys of having young children is being able to read aloud to them. So it is perhaps no surprise that many an adult swears by that great modern philosopher, Professor Albus Dumbledore. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling has him suggest, in conversation with Harry, that it is by our actions and not our intentions that others judge us – for as Dumbledore points out, we all have good intentions. This goes to the heart of what ethical decision making is about: what we do is a function of what we decide, and it seems to me that for leaders and managers, the actions by which we are most judged are our decisions and the things that happen as a result of those decisions.

Barbara Killinger, in her book Integrity quotes W. H. Auden: “Nobody can honestly think of himself as a strong character because, however successful he may be in overcoming them, he is necessarily aware of the doubts and temptations that accompany every important choice.” As leaders, those things which we choose to weigh in the balance before we make a decision offer insights into our integrity. Do we think selfishly or selflessly? Do we think of the short term or the long term? Do we make contingent decisions which reflect the situation in which we believe we find ourselves, or do we only make decisions which are congruent with our inner world of ethics and integrity? Do we, however much we intend to do otherwise, weigh the wrong things in the balance, or evaluate them poorly – and do we as a result make poor decisions or decisions which to others appear illogical or unsupportable? Do our decisions lead to actions and outcomes of which we are less than proud? Do we sometimes look back, reflect, regret, and wish we could be judged on our intentions and not on our actions? Yet as Dumbledore also said, in that same book, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” Whatever decisions we make, whatever the consequences, we cannot forget to live. But how much better would it be to live with pride in our own integrity, knowing that the decisions we make are ethical?

Of course, it is hard to make ethical decisions until we have some sense of what we mean by ethics. Over recent years it has become clear that there is a lexicon of words commonly heard in the corridors of power which, when the utterer is challenged, become hard to define. I’d include the word ethics in this category, along with words or concepts like values or principles. I hear them used and abused, and whether in conversation or in class, often when I challenge the speaker to define the word, we run into difficulty. That’s why I write, teach and talk around this subject – because the more we understand, the more we can apply that understanding to what we do on a daily basis: lead and decide, decide and lead.

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Roger Delves also regularly posts about this subject, follow him @DelvesRoger