Paul Butler: Decisions, decisions

Paul Butler

One of the most important responsibilities as a leader is to make a decision. One of the noblest attributes as a leader is to have the humility to apologize when a previously made decision was the wrong one to make. One of the most frustrating characteristics of working for an ineffective leader is when they are incapable of doing either.

During this current and ever-changing pandemic, we see our elected local and national leaders having to make decisions with the available information. Some of them seem very capable of making a decision — some, not so much. Some of them appear to have the fortitude to apologize when they need to reverse a previously made decision — some, not so much.

A good leader is not always popular with the people — in the same way a good parent is not always popular with the child. Regardless of whether the leader is guiding a city, county, state or country, they will not always be popular with all the people all the time. Therein lies the problem with much of what we’ve seen so far in the lack of leadership during these dark days — leadership that’s being pulled by the magnetic force of the will of the people rather than what is the right thing to do or not do at a point in time.

Should we wear a mask or not wear a mask? What now is the correct number of people we can gather with? Shall we sing in church or not? Are we to open or are we to close? Is our business essential or non-essential? Should we be tested or should we not?

To amplify the point, I thought it laughable when Surgeon General Jerome Adams spoke on the national television show “Face the Nation” this past weekend, conducting the complete interview wearing a face mask. Not only was it hard to follow his lead because we couldn’t read his lips — it seemed so silly as he was obviously speaking from the confines of his own home and just wanted to make a point about the importance of wearing a mask. Keep in mind, he told us several times in the past few weeks that wearing a mask was unnecessary and ineffective. Decisions, decisions.

You’ve perhaps heard of the predicament known as “paralysis by analysis,” meaning that sometimes a leader is simply unable to make a decision and instead keeps gathering more information, which compounds rather than alleviates the problem. I used to work for a leader like that, and it was so frustrating. He’d asked for numbers to run once more. Perhaps another spreadsheet would help, or maybe not? Maybe another meeting would help, or no — he should make the decision himself surely? More often than not, his office door was closed for hours on end and then he’d emerge to the masses — look around, look confused, scratch his head and then retreat back into his office to bury himself in papers again while shutting out the people in the cubes who could likely help him, if only he had the humility to ask. He became paralyzed by his own analysis. No one liked working for him due to his indecisiveness as a leader. We just never knew which way he would turn or whether he’d make a turn at all.

Therein lies another conundrum for leaders — when and whether to ask the opinion of those around you. My observation has been that great leaders welcome the views of experts around them. They lean in on the knowledge that others possess. The truly great ones then publicly and privately give thanks to greatness within the ranks. Conversely, poor leaders rarely ask the opinions of their underlings — they see people beneath them. On the rare occasion that brightness bubbles up without them, they’re keen to steal the glory for themselves and prefer to silence the significant contribution of their subordinates, due to their own insecurities as a leader.

If you’re given the formal, explicit authority to make decisions, make them well. Leadership is easy to say and hard to do. Gather trustworthy information and listen twice as much as you speak. Give credit where credit is due to those around you.

Make a decision and have the humility to reverse a decision if ever-changing circumstances demand a shift of course.

Decisions, decisions.

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