5 Key Decisions That Make or Break You as a Leader

Businessman considering a difficult decision
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The life of a leader or manager is an endless series of decisions, ranging from the simple and tactical to complex and strategic. It's these latter decisions, the complex and strategic, that leaders must get right or they jeopardize the success of their firms, teams, and their own careers. This article describes the five critical decisions that make or break you as a leader. 

Decisions Are Rocket Fuel for Actions

Decisions are the precursors to actions. These actions bring strategies, innovations, programs, and everything else in an organization to life. Everything we do in an organization and in our roles is either based on a decision. Everything we want to do is dependent upon decisions. 

The best leaders work hard at strengthening their effectiveness and the effectiveness of their teams and colleagues as decision-makers. They also are uniquely attuned to the 5 key decisions that change the fate of careers and organizations.

Decisions that Make or Break You as a Leader

1. Hiring for character. Hiring decisions are the most difficult of all. Often, managers are challenged to make judgment calls on limited data. The interview process is short and our ability to assess the skills, abilities, and character of individuals is challenged in the interview setting.

Great leaders understand that nothing good happens without great people. They work hard to scout for talent, and they interview slowly over time and assess individuals for character and values more than pedigree or even experience. They live by the rule: "Hire slow." 

The individual they select is someone who’s lived, learned, and conducted themselves in a way that reflects a strong, positive character and value-set. And then they do everything they can to support the development of this individual. 

2. Firing for lack of character. The converse of #1 above is that effective leaders work hard to get the toxicity out of their teams and organizations. They recognize their responsibility for creating an effective working environment where individuals are encouraged and motivated to offer their best. A toxic employee poisons this working environment and must be eliminated. 

No one loves firing someone; although, firing the toxic employee—after offering ample feedback, coaching, and opportunity to adapt—is an activity that leaves the leader feeling like she did her job.

3. Clarifying and dealing decisively with issues in the ethical gray-zone. The best leaders work hard to turn the gray-zone issues—ethical dilemmas—into easy choices between right and wrong. This is harder than it sounds, and often compensation systems and the drive for short-term results make it tempting to take the shortcut. It’s a slippery slope and your character as a leader is on trial with these decisions. There are no results worth sacrificing your professional character.

4. Navigating “fork-in-the-road” decisions. The late, great baseball and accidental social pundit, Yogi Berra, famously suggested, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” All leaders face directional choices ranging from tactical issues: this software or that software to strategic calls: this market or that market. The tactical decisions impact how effectively and efficiently work is performed, while the latter—the strategic choices—change the fate of organizations.

The strategic calls are the ones that produce sleepless nights and ample worrying. The best leaders think through the big calls, striving to carefully diagnose the situation and develop solutions and options that maximize the opportunity for success. They seek out alternative opinions. They invite others to challenge their assumptions. And they look far and wide for the data that shares clues in the right direction. And then they make the decision and work relentlessly to turn the decision into actions.

5. Recognizing and responding to mistakes. Not every decision—tactical or strategic—is a good one. Conscientious leaders constantly monitor the results and implications of their decisions looking for opportunities to strengthen or, if necessary, reverse course. They are comfortable saying, “This was wrong, I was wrong, and we need to go a different direction.” Sadly, the all-too-common lack of this moral courage perpetuates bad decisions and adversely impacts organizations, sometimes in a fateful or fatal way.

The Bottom Line for Now

There are a number of well-documented studies suggesting that decision-making effectiveness in organizations and financial results are positively correlated. While correlation isn’t causation, I have little doubt about this critical connection. Everyone in a firm is faced with hundreds of decisions every day, from transactional to highly strategic. The key is to get more right than wrong, particularly when it comes to these 5 critical decisions.