Leadership Lesson 9 – Make the Damn Decision

By: Curt Stowers

In step seven we addressed the issue of problem children. In step nine we address those times where you are the problem child. In particular, we point out the obvious: a leader is expected to lead. That means they make the decisions and move! Colin Powell has a great approach to this. His premise is as follows:

  • Get to 80% of the solution and then move. A well- executed plan will always defeat the perfect plan that is still on the drawing board.

That leads us to rule #9:

Rule #9 - Establish a firm deadline for all tasks. Stick with the deadline unless it is a matter of life and death.

This rule is derived from Parkinson's Law (Economist 1955):

  • Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

You see this law in action all the time. How many meetings have you been to where the presentation is still being finalized right up until the meeting starts? How many times have you observed your children put off homework over the weekend until Sunday evening? My guess is too many.

Flip this one around and reflect on the following situation: How many times have you faced a tight deadline and hit it? What was the quality of the output? Did things work out OK? Were you proud of what you accomplished? Where those around you impressed with what you accomplished? Was the customer who received the product happy? My guess is that you answered all of the above in the affirmative. You already know why this rule is so important; you simply need to keep it at the front of your mind.

Leaders who face difficulty with this rule need to look back at the management types that we outlined in step 4. In all likelihood if you are struggling with this rule, it's because you are more concerned about being liked than you are about being in charge. A leader has to make the tough decisions even if they are unpopular. The end result of making tough decisions is threefold:

  • First, you ensure the long-term viability of the organization. Paralysis by analysis is deadly. By deciding, you are maximizing the probability that the organization will be successful. Even if the decision is wrong, you'll have eliminated the first alternative and moved on to the second. In addition, you'll likely have learned from the process, and this learning will make the second attempt go much more quickly. Remember failure is not a bad thing.

  • Second, you will have capacity for more things. When you know what to do and yet spend an extra day, week, or month searching for a "better" solution, you are wasting your most valuable possession: time. Making the decision allows you to focus on the next task at hand.

  • Third, and most importantly, you'll gain respect from your team. They expect you to make the decisions. That's why you are in the leadership position. When you deliver on this expectation, it builds their confidence in you. It lets them know that they are free to fulfill their obligations. It lets them know that you're serious about getting things done. It sets the tone for the organization.

Finally, you will fail. Get over it. We are all human and failure is part of life. However, if you focus on executing solid, well thought-out plans, those instances of failure will be few and far between. Conversely, if you can’t make up your mind / can’t make the decision, you are already a failure. Harsh words, but you need to face reality if you are to grow as a leader.


ACTION ITEM 9 - Pull out your to do list and review each item, quickly writing down the best course of action based on the current fact set. For each action you listed, write down the worst possible result of taking that action. Now write down the likely outcome of taking that action. For any item where the worst possible outcome is not catastrophic and the likely action is acceptable, take the action. For those actions where the result would not be catastrophic, establish a firm deadline and stick to it.

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