The decision-making process of a business leader is one of the greatest challenges facing the daily routine. Some decisions are simple, but others can deeply impact the business, in the short or the long term.
It reminds me of the person practicing target shooting. A slight, imperceptible move of the hand will make the bullet hit several inches away from the target. These are, many times, the impacts in the future, of little mistakes of present decisions.
That’s why leadership is sometimes very solitary. On other occasions, a feeling of comfort can be felt when you are surrounded by a capable team, when, at the end, the final decision must be made by the leader. In the decision-making process different tools are available, such as science, consensus, counseling, experience, feeling, you name it.
All these together convert the process into a work of art, rather than into a pragmatic procedure.
The one very important thing to realize is that a business is not a democracy. If it were, leaders and decision-makers would not be necessary, but surveys and voting channels would take care of it. There are, of course, issues in which the majority should be heard, thus influencing for instance the climate of the labor force.
We are talking here of the hard, key decisions that move and impact the business.
Consensus can be a great support in the process, but also a pitfall, because it can easily mask the final responsibility of leaders, which are the ones that supposedly should really decide.
We are surrounded by examples in which successful decisions are usually attributed to a great team, but if something goes wrong, the leader, the CEO, becomes the one to blame, despite the dependability of his co-workers.
That is when leadership can be very lonely and unstable, because the outcome is never known; only time will show. Whether good or bad decisions are made, the same feelings of uncertainty at the starting point will always haunt business leaders.
There is a great difference between deciding based on the consensus of direct reports, and a decision because the leader is in tune with the team. But sometimes, consensus is not what matters.
The most striking example is that of General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of D-Day, which was the invasion of the Allied Forces in Normandy, on July 6, 1944, during World War II.
The invasion was supposed to happen on July 4, but the bad weather was an obstacle, and it was postponed to the 5th. Again, the weather bulletins were very pessimistic, and some members of his staff were proposing to postpone the invasion to the 19th, when there was some guarantee of good weather. The team was completely divided.
The size of the operation was incredible. There were more than 5,000 ships of all types, transporters fully loaded with soldiers (from 12 nations), already suffering the effects of bad weather and stormy waters, while the vessels were waiting for the order to attack. In the air force, more than 5,000 heavy bombers, 1,600 mid-size bombers and 5,000 fighter planes, were also waiting for the green light. On the other hand, the risk of complete failure was very high, due to the weather.
With his staff completely divided, in the evening of the 5th, Eisenhower said, “The question is, how long can you put that operation on the top of a tree and let it hang there?”. There was no answer. Against the odds, at 9:45 pm Eisenhower made his own decision: “I am quite convinced that the order must be given”.
Around 11:00 pm all ships in the fleet received the order to sail. D-Day would be on July 6. Interestingly, Eisenhower had a note written to be handed in to the press in case of failure of the operation. A few days later, he found the note in his wallet and threw it away. One of his officials retrieved it from the waste basket and kept it in his journal.
There is not a precise formula to figure out when a decision is to be made solely by the leader, in consensus or through other means. What is important is to feel and know that the decision is yours alone.
I experienced a situation of a very sensitive legal issue to be decided after examining a contract related to a sizable acquisition by a top customer. The questions and implications were so many, that we held a virtual meeting that included our internal lawyers, the ones belonging to the local law office support, and two more counselors from our headquarters in the USA.
We had long discussions about the pros and cons, everything leading to an apparent deadlock. I barely realized that one of the members of our staff had brought an intern from the law department to learn from that experience. After a few seconds of thoughtful silence, the intern looked at me and firmly said: “Sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t sign this contract”. That statement, as a lightening, brought me the conviction to make the decision, much to the amazement of the audience.
Sometimes, the assurance we need comes from the most unexpected sources.
There is a great difference between leaders that listen to their staff, but make their own decisions, regardless of the opinion of the team, and the ones that decide absolutely everything just when there is full consensus.
The balance is somewhere in the middle, and it is up to each person, according to their style, to find the right point.
Yes, sometimes leadership brings loneliness, but on the other hand, the leader has many sources where to seek for the proper information that points to the right decision.
There is no technological tool (such as AI – artificial intelligence, for instance) that matches the human capacity of processing the information considering the people, the facts, the emotions involved, the circumstances of a business and the expectations of the stakeholders.
All the above must be analyzed together with the leader’s experience, education, personality, style, capacity of really listening to others and seeing the world through their eyes. That is why it is unlikely that two different leaders will decide equally on the same issue.
The final key factor for leaders to pursue is the development of their confidence on this unique set of capabilities and make their own, necessary decisions, with all these resources at hand.