I recently had the experience of watching a leader—whom I really respect and look up to—get lambasted by his employees for a couple of big strategic decisions at his company. In one case, I think it was the right decision, but it seemed to abruptly come out of nowhere. In the other case, not only was it possibly the wrong decision, but it took weeks of agonizing, circular debate to get to the decision point.

This is an aspect of leadership that I don’t think is always obvious unless you’ve been there. Sometimes the process of making a decision is as important to the organization as the decision itself.

The Marine Corps’ Warfighting (PDF)—which is seriously one of the best “business” books I’ve ever read—espouses the value of boldness. Young officers are trained to take initiative, to be bold:

Boldness is an essential moral trait in a leader for it generates combat power beyond the physical means at hand. Initiative, the willingness to act on one’s own judgment, is a prerequisite for boldness. These traits carried to excess can lead to rashness, but we must realize that errors by junior leaders stemming from over-boldness are a necessary part of learning. We should deal with such errors leniently; there must be no “zero defects” mentality. Abolishing “zero defects” means that we do not stifle boldness or initiative through the threat of punishment. It does not mean that commanders do not counsel subordinates on mistakes; constructive criticism is an important element in learning. Nor does it give subordinates free license to act stupidly or recklessly.

Not only must we not stifle boldness or initiative, but we must continue to encourage both traits in spite of mistakes. On the other hand, we should deal severely with errors of inaction or timidity. We will not accept lack of orders as justification for inaction; it is each Marine’s duty to take initiative as the situation demands. We must not tolerate the avoidance of responsibility or necessary risk.

I’ve also heard this described as a having a “bias to action,” e.g. in Amazon’s Leadership Principles. With most binary decisions (“yes” or “no”), there’s an implicit third option to do nothing.1 Generally-accepted wisdom is that it’s better to make an explicit choice rather than have the choice made for you.

But just as boldness can be used to shock and awe an enemy in a battle, boldness can induce fear and anxiety in the people affected by a big decision. Some decisions need to be socialized first, to give folks a chance to get accustomed to the new world before they have to live in it.

Consensus-building can look a lot like inaction. With a lot of decisions, you’d wait forever if you waited for 100% buy-in from all stakeholders. So leaders are constantly having to walk a fine line between being abrupt and being decisive.

In an ideal organization, there’s enough trust between layers of management that good faith can be assumed even when a leader gets it wrong. Quoting Warfighting again:

Consequently, trust is an essential trait among leaders—trust by seniors in the abilities of their subordinates and by juniors in the competence and support of their seniors. Trust must be earned, and actions which undermine trust must meet with strict censure. Trust is a product of confidence and familiarity. Confidence among comrades results from demonstrated professional skill. Familiarity results from shared experience and a common professional philosophy.

This is way easier said than done.

  1. The advantage of asking for “forgiveness instead of permission”—aka being bold—turns the implicit option into a default “yes” instead of default “no” when you’re on the receiving end of inaction. ↩︎