When did we decide that decisive leadership was synonymous with effective leadership?  And, what information did we use to make that decision? Did we ever actually take the time – and do the research – to decide this at all?

Decisive leadership matters, but effective leadership matters more.

Too often organizations and executive boards say they want their top executives to be decisive leaders, and then they spend all kinds of time and money cleaning up the messes that these leaders make when they neglect to take the time or demonstrate the competence necessary to make the best decisions instead of just the fastest ones.
I suggest we ask ourselves, “Do we want fast decisions, or do we want the best or right decisions?”  Let’s stop and think about what the word decisive actually means. Decisive is defined by as being “able to make choices quickly and confidently, causing something to end in a particular way; determining what the result of something will be; very clear and obvious.” The extended definition includes:
  • having the power or quality of deciding
  • resolute, determined
  • unmistakable, unquestionable
Certainly, decisive leadership has a proper time and place, but when leaders use this approach as default in all or most of their decision making, the board, employees and stakeholders should be concerned.
Inevitably this leadership approach, when not balanced with critical thinking and punctilious decision-making processes, leads to dire circumstances and negative results for everyone. And then, the goal of the organization becomes one of bringing in a new and different leader to clean up messes that a prior “decisive” leader created.

Here are the four perils of decisive leadership:

1. The shoot-first mentality.
Decisive leaders might be prone to make decisions first and ask questions later (if ever) because they feel that the big issue [the important factor] is just to actually decide something – anything. They go in to do the deed; consequences be damned, and they feel they must do it with such confidence that they don’t consider whether their decision may indeed be wrong.
Note, I did not say that they actually are confident in their decisions; I said they “feel” they must demonstrate confidence, and this pressure becomes an obstacle to remaining open to see or address other problems that could result from the decision.
A huge risk here is that decisive leaders may not be strategic thinkers who reflect on the unintentional consequences of their decisions, and you should never just assume otherwise.
2. Acting is more important than thinking.
Decisive leaders may see their strength in acting as a leader, and “acting” means making a decision and making it fast. Thinking critically and weighing alternatives and consequences can be viewed as a nuance and may be thought of as a big waste of time on the front end. The result is that these types of leaders go ahead and decide something (because that is what they see as important), and others (employees, stakeholders, etc.) just have to deal with the consequences later.
A huge risk here is that in an effort to make a quick decision – to appear decisive – the leader seeks to narrow things down to black or white and simply ignore the gray of it all. They will just ignore all the messy, complicated details that more thoughtful leaders insist on considering.
3. Decisions aren’t necessarily connected to data intelligence.
Decisive leaders are usually sought after and brought in when an organization seeks to achieve a pre-defined outcome and has an ulterior motive (i.e., firing someone or several people, eliminating a department, restructuring an organization, etc.). When the outcomes have already been predetermined, it is easier to bring in a so-called “decisive” leader who may prioritize speed over data. Often times the powers that be are just hiring someone to come on in and “make” (really announce) the decisions.
Evaluating the merits of these decisions by collecting and analyzing data is not something the board or other executives necessarily care about because the goal becomes to actually just “do” something.
A huge risk here is that the long-term implications can come back to bite (or harm) the organization and those within it. In an effort to appear decisive, leaders may not even evaluate whether a decision is actually what is best for the organization. If the data might contradict a planned course of action, people start to decide they either don’t care or don’t want to know.
4. The ego can be bigger than the organization.
Decisive leaders often feel a need to display a forceful and unquestionable leadership style. The leader’s internal executive team comes to “understand” that they are just figure heads serving at the pleasure of the leader. They quickly learn that by asserting his “decisive” leadership methods, the head man in charge is really just saying “don’t question me or my authority.”
A decisive leader believes he is the most important and smartest person in the room and really doesn’t care about differing viewpoints. The consequences to others are secondary to the leader’s ego. Questions, even if they are invited, are superficial to the predetermined outcome.
A huge risk here is that you can intentionally or unintentionally create “yes men” and hinder your own leadership success. As dissent gets squashed, organizational risk increases. Other leaders, managers or employees learn to keep quiet and don’t point out red flags or warning signs in a persistent way (if at all). The collective talent and competence of an entire group could get diminished to the feelings, desires or impulses of the decisive leader.

Prioritize Effectiveness Over Decisiveness 

Effective leaders are reflective, contemplative, considerate, analytical strategic thinkers. They often display highly developed critical thinking skills and resist the temptation to shoot first and ask questions later. Effective leaders ask questions first and take the time to properly weigh options and outcomes for all impacted parties (internal and external stakeholders).
Being decisive does not necessarily mean you are also being effective. The greatest leaders are those who actually take some time to evaluate their decisions against a host of internal and external forces while considering the benefits and consequences to both internal and external stakeholders.
Learning how to consider and evaluate options and then actually choose between alternatives [critical thinking] is an in-demand skill that is sadly lacking. The better decision makers are those who apply critical thinking and analysis in their process and put considerable thought in the intentional and unintentional consequences (both positive and negative) of their actions and decisions.
I don’t recommend listing decisive leadership as a core leadership competency. I recommend that organizations recruit and promote punctilious leaders who apply a critical thinking and analytical approach to decision making. So if you intend to be an effective leader instead of just a decisive one, I suggest to you these questions.
Ten (10) questions that prompt and advance critical thinking and support effective leadership:
  1. Why do I/we need to care about this issue? Or – What prompted the need for this decision to be made?
  2. What happens if I/we don’t decide on this issue? Is the status quo acceptable? Why or why not?
  3. What outcomes are you/we trying to achieve? Who cares about them?
  4. What are my/our biases, prejudices, interests, or values?
  5. Whom will this decision mostly affect? How?
  6. What are the positive and negative consequences of this decision?
  7. Who are the short-term and long-term beneficiaries?
  8. What is the worst result this decision can bring? Can I/we live with that?
  9. What are forces for or against this decision? Do I/we care? Why or why not?
  10. What is the second choice/option or fallback position? Is it viable and how do you know?
Again, there is a time and a benefit to decisive leadership, but when/if it is the default response or leadership style to all things and decisions, it can create more problems than it solves due to a lack of contemplating the effects of the decisions.

Check Out 15 Questions Strategic Thinkers Ask To Demonstrate Organizational Value and Create Even More Strategic Thinkers.

This article has been updated from its original version which was posted in 2018.

Terina Allen
CEO, ARVis Institute
International Speaker | Strategist | Management Consultant | Educator | Author