Great leaders are decisive. So why isn’t decisiveness a key criterion in leadership selection? Whenever we conduct focus groups of employees, a major frustration that emerges is leaders, including managers, who just don’t make timely decisions. How did these people get into leadership roles — especially since decision-making style is one of the easiest things that can be observed and established through personality testing?
This irony is all the more pronounced in light of the fact that leaders can be taught or motivated to become decisive, even when it is not their natural tendency, as pointed out in a recent HBR blog, Just Make a Decision Already. Yet, many companies do not do this effectively, just as they don’t train managers in other capabilities that are critical to engaging employees.
Based on our experience and study, it is clear that a leader with a natural tendency to be decisive will be more effective than a non-decisive leader who has been taught to be decisive. A non-decisive executive who has completed decisiveness training will still find it difficult to make a big decision without a significant expenditure of energy. With a focus on mustering the courage to be decisive rather than the merits of the decision at hand, the executive will often wind up choosing the lower risk alternative rather than the best business outcome. The problem is compounded because the executive now has little energy left to communicate the decision and motivate the team to execution.
When leaders are given incentives to be decisive there are multiple issues to be considered. First, the leader will work to rack up decisiveness points for evaluation purposes. This check-the-box approach will often not result in decisiveness around the right issues. In addition, the carrot-and-stick approach to motivating decisiveness is especially energy depleting since it evokes fear to overcome resistance to an energy-draining activity. Finally, this approach takes leadership mind share away from other critical goals.
Of course learned decisiveness and decisiveness in response to incentives are much better than indecisiveness. And these approaches may be the only effective approaches for existing indecisive leaders. Moving forward, however, using effective assessments to identify naturally decisive people to put in leadership roles is what makes the most sense and will deliver the best results.