Death by Indecisiveness

I’m not sure if there is anything more useless than a leader who cannot or more likely, will not, make a decision. 


I know that sounds harsh but I’ve really held that belief since I was a seventeen year old High School senior. As a Senior Officer in my Military High School I had the responsibility of overseeing the small bore rifle range for a Freshman military class. 


One day a student’s rifle misfired and the student turned toward me looking for instructions on what to do. (We had only explained the proper procedure 1000 times) As he turned toward me the barrel of his rifle also tuned toward me and I hesitated to give direction for a split second. That was long enough for the round in the chamber to go off striking me in the foot. 


I was fortunate on many levels. I was wearing boots which helped and the round was only a .22 caliber, plus the 14 year old Freshman had kept the barrel of his weapon pointed toward the ground. It was a relatively minor injury and at the time I was more upset about my boot than my foot. 


But I was also unfortunate. I was unfortunate (in hindsite also foutunate) in that the active duty military person on the range that day was Sergeant Major Stock. To say that he was mad would be the understatement of my entire four years of High School. 


Funny thing was, he wasn’t mad at the kid who shot me; he was furious with me. He was furious because he said my indecision, as brief as it was, could have gotten me killed. 


I stood there with blood oozing out of my boot while he screamed at me about the importance of making decisions. I distinctly remember him “explaining” that even a wrong decision was better than no decision. He said that in fact a “no decision” was a decision, it was a decision to not decide and that was a sure way to lose all control over a situation. 


He said that even when you make a wrong decision you retain control over changing it, improving it, or fixing it. He said doing something, deciding something, was always better than doing nothing or deciding nothing. ALWAYS! I think he actually said always like a dozen times, each time a little louder than the previous. 


Needless to say the whole thing made quite an impression on me and I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned that day. It’s probably why I have so little patience for people who claim to be leaders and then show little ability or desire to make even small decisions.


Perhaps they believe they are playing it “safe” by not making a decision but in fact, they couldn’t be more wrong.


The inability to make a decision is as serious a flaw as a leader can have. It has killed as many careers as dishonesty, stupidity and lack of good judgment combined. 


I’m not suggesting that anyone make decisions on a whim. I’d highly recommend that a leader get as many facts regarding a particular situation as possible before making a decision. You may not have all the facts you would like to have but once you get all the facts that you’re going to get in a reasonable amount of time then you need to make a decision. DECIDE! It’s what leaders do. 


There are a lot of reasons that people in leadership positions hesitate when making decisions, the fear of making a bad decision, the fear of making someone mad or disappointing them and the fear that you just don’t know the right choice to make. I get all of that but none of those are valid reasons for delaying what needs to be done, they are merely excuses for avoiding a major responsibility of leading.


If you really don’t have the confidence or ability to make a decision then find a coach or mentor who can help you develop that critical skill. I know as a leader you will be required to make decisions that impact the lives of those you lead. I know that is not easy. Leading, truly leading, is not easy. 

But if you’re going to have the audacity to label yourself a leader then you have to make decisions. You simply must! Always, always, always……

13 thoughts on “Death by Indecisiveness

  1. In your example yes delay was very dangerous. I think making a decision without having the key facts is as dangerous -so having the data and having
    the timing of decisions right are important elements as well. I do agree delaying decisions where the delay is not warranted is poor leadership.

    1. We need to be very honest with ourselves as to when we have the facts. I’ve seen many leaders wait for more “facts” that were never going to come. It was simply an excuse to delay a decision that needed to be made without all the information we wish we had. I would of course never recommend making a decision without the available facts but we can’t wait forever. I would like to know the state of the economy 5 years from today before making a business decision tomorrow, I’m never going to know for sure so I must use experience, sound outside advice and sometimes instinct to make the decision. If it’s wrong I can adjust but waiting to know the future eliminates any chance I have to make a sound decision today.

  2. I am walking into a new leadership position and asked to do a 30-60-90 day plan. It’s a new campus and I only have data and no facts on why the data shows deficit numbers. Here is my plan: first 30 days- get to know staff and campus environment 60 days-gather data on why numbers show deficit 90 day- schedule professional development to address problem.
    After reading your article, I am wondering if I am taking too long to make a decision. Will this backfire on me? What are your thoughts?

    1. That actually sounds good to me. While 90 days can seem long you’ll be moving closer to a logical plan everyday. If you were sitting on your hands “pondering ” for 90 days that would be a different story. Sometimes we have to live with a problem for a while to truly understand it and be certain we are dealing with the root cause and not merely treating the symptoms. It sounds to me like you’re on exactly the right track.

  3. Good story, and in that particular situation a quick decision was certainly needed. And I agree with the other comments thus far, but I believe that decision-making is similar to public administration in that it is contextual. The quickness of making a decision depends on the problem, what you are trying to accomplish, how much authority you have, the politics, whether you are trying to empower a subordinate to make decisions, etc.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The post wasn’t really about making quick decisions, it’s focus is on leaders who consistently fail to make a decision period. Clearly the speed in which a decision is made depends on many factors. The point is not making a decision IS a decision and it is a terrible one, almost certain to have a worse outcome than even a wrong decision.

  4. There is a great book/article written (the name escapes me right now) several decades ago about the three types of decisions and not making a decision was one of the three types. Choosing not to make a decision in fact is a decision. As a leader I think that is ok in some cases just as deciding for or against something is ok in other cases. I agree that hesitation is hardly ever a good approach. However, I have observed managers making hasty decisions that result in much wasted time and work. Part of the decision making equation in every instance should include consequences and time – in your example time was of the essence and your superior officer wanted you to understand that and I agree that was an important factor. However, many public administrators are rarely facing life or death decisions in split-second time scenarios. Many public administrators rarely have perfect or complete information either. Therefore time, information, and consequences should always be weighted in the process of decision making. I do agree that usually decisions can be modified and overturned and a good leader should not hesitate to do so when they have better information. And a good leader should be as proud of overturning a bad decision that he/she made as making a good decision initially.

    1. I completely agree with you, hasty decisions are generally not good. My point was more about “leaders” who have all the information they are ever going to get to make a decision and still won’t make the decision. I even agree with those who say to not make a decision until you have to…that works for me too. I take issue with those who have all the facts, have had plenty of time to make a decision, need to make a decision now and STILL WON’T decide anything. Those are the leaders who are likely to do serious harm to their organization.

  5. I’ve always believed that being able to make a decision is a strength, especially for a leader, period. A thoughtful decision, even better.

  6. That shot must have left a mark! Literally and figuratively. Thanks for sharing Steve.

    Indecisiveness. Same holds true for entrepreneurs who want their product or service to be -perfect- before hitting the launch button.

    I once read this quote by Kathryn Minshew talking about her work with conscientious business owners who are afraid to put a product on the market until it’s perfect.

    Kathryn said: “An ugly baby is better than no baby at all.”

    Meaning of course, once the product is at 80%, launch the damn thing! Otherwise, your indecisiveness might have the market passing you by looking at you through their rear view mirror.

    Decide and you’ll figure out the other 18% (no product is ever 100%, you’ll always be tweaking) while in flight.

    p.s. I’m off for a day of snorkeling in the blue waters of SE Asia. Hoping things are marvy on your side of the planet!

    1. The shot left a mark on me and my new highly shined boots. Thanks for your comment Steve, I know most people believe believe in “better late than never” but in real life more often than not late actually turns into never. Things are awesome here, I hope Donald lets you back into the US one day. 😊

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