What Great Leaders Understand

There are tangible reasons some leaders are better than others. Some people may believe it’s luck, others may think it’s karma, still others insist it’s just a timing thing.

 

But the fact is some leaders are better than others because they understand stuff that average leaders just don’t get. Chief among that stuff is that decisions matter and they matter because every decision changes something once it’s acted upon.

 

The best leaders are always at least a few steps ahead of weaker leaders. It’s like when you watch a good pool player. They are thinking where they want to leave the cue ball for their next two or three shots. Great Chess players are always several moves ahead of average Chess players.

 

So it is with the best leaders. They know that every decision has consequences, some could be good and some could be not so good. But they understand that every single decision comes with consequences and they not only consider the consequences they also consider the consequences of the consequences and the consequences of those consequences. They are generally way ahead in their thinking than average leaders.

 

Average leaders make too many decisions without thinking of even the first layer of consequences. They are more reactive decision makers than proactive and that puts them behind the curve pretty much every step of the way.

 

That’s why average leaders always seem to be scrambling to “fix” what wasn’t broken until they broke it. They often receive recognition for being a great “fire-fighter” when the fact is they are a Pyromaniac of a leader. Their poorly considered decisions cause many of the fires they are later applauded for extinguishing. 

 

People don’t follow Pyro Leaders because the heat they generate makes it too hard to succeed.

 

If you want to become a more effective leader then you simply must understand that your actions and decisions have consequences. Not only must you understand that but you must also accept responsibility for those consequences, especially if those consequences turn out to be less than desirable. It’s only by accepting responsibility for your decisions that you’ll learn to make better ones.

 

It’s pretty tough to get ahead when you’re perpetually two steps behind. Consider the consequences BEFORE you act on your decisions and your decisions will likely change considerably. 


Then you’ll have the chance to truly lead.

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……

Mind Your Gaps

I had the opportunity several years ago to sit in on a presentation to a group of senior leaders. The presentation was from a speaker who uses Civil War history to teach leadership lessons. 

As someone who was required to take Military History as part of my high school curriculum I can tell you that military battles offer great insights into leadership successes and failures. I was excited to hear the presentation. 

The presentation focused on The Battle of Gettysburg which began on July 1st, 1863. During the first hours of battle, Union General John Reynolds was killed while leading his troops from the front. Outnumbered, the union forces were stymied for a time and it took awhile for them to regroup.

After sharing the story of the early hours of that famous battle the presenter asked the assembled group of senior leaders whether or not General Reynolds made the right decision in leading from the front. He had exposed himself to enemy fire and left his troops without his leadership as a result.

The leadership team in the room had differing opinions as to the wisdom of General Reynolds decision. Some thought it better if he had “lead from the rear” thus protecting himself from direct conflict. They felt that he jeopardized the mission by putting himself in harms way. You could see their point considering that his death did seem to slow down the union forces for a time. 

Others thought he showed true leadership by putting himself out front. Their point was that a leader shouldn’t ask their people to do something that they as a leader were unwilling to do. They also pointed out that since the Union forces eventually won his decision was proven correct. Also a good point. 

But here’s what I truly found fascinating; most had an opinion. They had this opinion in spite of having very little actual information about how the battle unfolded. There were a lot of “gaps” in the story of the battle as presented. (I’m sure the presenter did that mostly in the interest of time)

So how did this room full of top leaders come to an opinion with so little information? How did they know if General Reynolds had made the right decision despite the “gaps” in the story?

They did what all leaders, all people actually, do when they need to make a decision without all available information….they filled in the gaps with information from their own experiences. 

As I observed these key leaders offer their opinions I knew immediately which ones would accept risk in a decision and which ones would be more cautious…perhaps too cautious to lead in difficult circumstances. 

Those who believed that Reynolds had made the right call were willing to accept some level of risk and those who thought he had made the wrong call likely were not willing to accept that same level of risk. 

If time had permitted and the presenter had filled in the gaps himself then the audience wouldn’t have needed to supplant the story with their own experiences. In that case I really would not have been able to assess their appetite for risk. 

That same scenario plays out in business all the time. Leaders and their people make decisions even when they don’t have all the information that they wish they had. They simply use information from their own life history to fill in the gaps. 

That’s why two smart people, presented with identical, if incomplete information, can reach such differing conclusions. 

As a leader it is imperative that you know you’re people well. The better you know them and especially the better you understand them, the better you’ll understand the information they use to fill in their gaps. 

It’s also vital that you understand where your own “gap filling” information comes from. 

Understanding how both you and your people mind their gaps will help you see how two very different conclusions could both seem correct. 

Now, as to General Reynolds…the only mistake we can actually confirm he made was getting himself shot. As a good military leader he knew full well that his ultimate goal was not dying for the North, his ultimate goal was making as many Confederate troops as possibly die for the South. 

In that effort he failed completely.

Decisions Decisions

If you’re a leader then you make many decisions during a year. Some are big and some not so big. But every decision changes something, assuming of course that the decision was acted on. 

I don’t often suggest taking long looks in the rear view mirror but every now and then it serves a purpose. This is the time of year for looking back. A little self-reflection can help you remember some of the lessons of the past year that you may have forgotten.

So while you’re in reflection mode ask yourself, “What decisions that I made in the last year would I like to take back?”

It’s probably not a lot of fun to rehash decisions that didn’t turn out as planned but it can be a valuable exercise. You’ll want to look at the information you used to make the decision. It’s worth noting where the information came from and if you were alone in the decision or if your team agreed with you.

You want to pay particular attention as to whether the actual decision was flawed or if the mistake was in the execution. By the way, the biggest mistake of all is making a decision and then not acting on it…just sayin’.

Reflections on past decisions should be a learning experience. It’s not an opportunity to assign blame to anyone, it’s an opportunity to learn and to avoid the same mistake in the future.

If you discover that there are too many decisions that you would make differently then you know you’ve really grown throughout the year. Your short time of self-reflection should give you the opportunity to use that growth to have an even more successful 2017. 

But remember, you have to first acknowledge a poor decision before you can possibly learn from it.

Think about that too!

 

5 Cents

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. – Mark Twain

Nobody can be right all the time but the best leaders are indeed right far more often than not. They are right more often than not because they best leaders have good judgment. The simple definition of judgment is: an opinion or decision that is based on careful thought or the act or process of forming an opinion or making a decision after careful thought.

Both of those definitions have the term “careful thought” in common. A decision based on careless thought is rarely a good decision and never as good of a decision as it could have been. 

A ball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? 

Research says that 79% of the people who just answered that question instinctively, without careful thought answered that question wrong. 

Great leaders think and they think carefully before making a decision. They consider the consequences of their decision and the consequences of those consequences. Like a chess master they think several steps ahead of most people.

Great leaders think bigger.

Most importantly they know what they don’t know. They don’t assume much if anything. They verify their facts, they have people who they can bounce ideas off of, they count on those people to tell them the truth, not just what they want to hear.

The best leaders know that they can find out about the things they don’t know. They also know that their real problems come from “knowing” things that just aren’t true.

I think most people actually have the potential to have good judgment, they appear to lack good judgment because their decisions are instinctive rather than informed. They sometimes seem to think that a quick decision is better than a delayed decision. Great leaders know that a delayed right decision will beat a quick wrong decision every single time. Every single time.

I know I’m likely to get hundreds of tweets and responses saying I should go back to school and study math because they believe the answer to my earlier question is indeed 10 cents. 

I thought about telling you why 10 cents is wrong but I’m not going to. Instead I’ll tell you this, if you’re willing to pay attention, really pay attention, then all the information you need to make good decisions and show good judgment is readily available to you. 

You only need to pay real attention, you must linger on the words on the person you’re speaking with until you truly understand what they mean. You must read every word in a sentence because words matter, if you don’t your brain will play tricks on you and make you think that $1.05 is really $1.00. 

Your judgment improves when you think bigger, listen intently and observe with both your eyes and your mind wide open. You have good judgement, the question is will you develop the skills you need to make use of it. 

When you do, you’ll know without a doubt that the ball costs a mere 5 cents.

Good Decisions

The right decision made at the wrong time is a bad decision. The right time to make a decision is when you have as many facts as you can get to make it. Sometimes it will be all the facts, sometimes it will be enough facts and sometimes you’ll have to make a decision with less facts than you would want. 

But if you intend to lead then you have to make decisions period!

Once you have all the facts available, whether you believe it’s enough facts or not, you must make a decision. Deciding not to make a decision or deciding to delay a decision IS A DECISION and it is frequently the wrong decision. In fact, it’s worse than a wrong decision because a wrong decision can be fixed, a “non-decision” often cannot.

I see people all the time who have the facts required to make a decision and yet just can’t bring themselves to make it. They think and think, rethink and rethink, sleep on it and still don’t come to a decision. 

When they finally decide something it’s often too late to have the positive impact that a more timely decision would have had.

I believe one of the major causes of poor decision making is a lack of awareness of values, vision, and mission. 

When faced with a decision ask yourself how each possible decision will align with your values. Does the decision get you closer to your vision or not?  Does the choice you would make “fit” with your mission? 

Here’s the real challenge: when asked, most people can’t clearly state their values, either their personal values or the values of their organization. Most every organization has some sort of vision and or mission statement but they are no better than a slogan unless people know what they are and actually align themselves to them. A vision and mission statement should be used to guide every decision made in the organization. 

If something doesn’t get you closer to your vision then why on earth would you do it. If something is contrary to your values or the values of your organization then your choice is clear…and much easier.

When you know AND live your values every decision is easier. When you understand your mission, either in business or in life, then every decision becomes clear. 

It requires some serious reflection to truly understand your values. You will also find your values much easier to know than to live. But that’s okay, values can not only help to keep you on track, they can help you get back on track when you fall off the rails.

When you know, really know, what your true values are, when you understand your mission and have a vision for your life and business then you will find yourself not only making faster decisions, you’ll find yourself making much better decisions too.

The Importance of Decision Making

Successful people make good decisions. “Lucky” people make good decisions. The people you admire make good decisions. Good results are the product of good decisions.

I could make a strong case that everything “good” comes about as a result of good decisions. Perhaps some people could argue that not “everything” good comes from decisions but this much is certain; the quality of a person’s life is directed affected by the quality of their decisions.

Way too many people are virtually unaware of just how many decisions they make each day. You decide, yes YOU decide, who you hang around with, what you watch and listen to, who you believe, where your information comes from, when to go to bed, how much alcohol to drink, what to eat….all of those things are decisions. 

You even decide whether or not you will have a positive attitude. Yes, even your attitude is ultimately your decision and it is likely the biggest decision you make each day.

Perhaps you think you don’t need to make decisions in those areas, maybe you’re a “go with the flow” kinda person and you just let the people and circumstances around you “decide” for you. If that’s the case you should know that letting “others” decide for you often has the impact of making you less successful than you could be.

It’s great to ask others for advice and I strongly encourage people to have a mentor for that very reason but for decisions affecting you personally YOU should be making the final decision. 

You need to make your own decisions because ultimately it’s the decisions you make that make you who you are. There are outcomes, results, and consequences, both positive and negative, to every decision. Everything you say, do, and even think plays a role in determining who you really are. It’s worth investing a moment or two in deciding what’s best for you.

Some decisions will be harder than others. Some may be excruciatingly difficult. When you don’t know what to do just do the next right thing… the next right thing doesn’t have to be a big thing, baby steps are okay, just keep moving towards being the person you want to be. 

Your life is collectively made from all the decisions you make and don’t make. Work hard to make the decisions that give you the life you want. You’ll find that those decisions work just as hard for you!