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decision making in leadership

When considering great leaders one only has to think of such people as Ghandi, Churchill and Boadicea. It would be nice to think that we all have something of the ‘right stuff’ to make a difference in our worlds.  There is a good chance that you already have some of the right stuff or at least understand how its application might just make your job slightly easier.  Honing these skills and learning how others did and still do lead will further enhance your ability to get it right and be successful in your chosen field. 

Key Skills

Leaders of all types use a number of skills.  My experience of leading (and being led) has shown me that there are a number of skills that all great leader possess:

  • Working with what they have – the ability to accept people as they are, not as you would like them to be and moulding them into a cohesive team.  
  • Never looking back – the capacity to approach relationships and problems in terms of the present rather than the past.
  • The common touch – the ability to treat those who are close to you with the same courteous attention that you extend to strangers and casual acquaintances.
  • Trust – the ability to trust others, even if the risk seems great.
  • Self belief – the ability to do without constant approval and recognition from others.

Regardless of the common skills described above, one must accept that different people lead differently, but there is a set of attributes that most good leaders share, and includes organisational ability, a desire to succeed, drive and determination. In my experience the all-important one, the game-changer is decision-making ability. What would Margaret Thatcher or Nelson Mandela have been without this attribute?

It would be easy to dismiss the exploits of the great leaders named above as irrelevant for today’s workplace.  After all their environment, drivers and problems were different to those you may face on a daily basis.  Yes, the context in which every leader operates is “unique” (as far as the leader is concerned), but the requirement to make decisions in a timely and effective manner is exactly the same.

Skills of a Good Decision-Maker

The most important component of decision-making is self-confidence, that inner belief that what you are doing is correct; the leader must be careful, however, to not let this self confidence morph into arrogance. If you are confident in your mental capabilities and how you envision the world around you, then you will have no problem in analysing a situation and making a decision you can stand by for better or worse. 

Self confident leaders are able to analyse in great detail.  I was introduced to second, third and fourth order analysis many years ago.  My then boss used the phrase ‘so what’.  When dealing with a problem he would ask the question ‘so what?’ of every factor and component of the problem until he could take his analysis no further. The value of analysis cannot be overstated because it allows a person to systematically break down a situation and see its individual parts for what they are, thereby, providing a thorough overview. 

A key part of decision-making is the ability to think critically. The great value of critical thought can be traced all the way back to the philosopher Socrates, who advocated that critical thought and self-reflection are major components of what it is to be human.

Finally, the last two attributes of being a decisive person are understanding the value of research and the ability to manage conflict.  Conflict management is within yourself and your belief structure, and with and amongst others. One must be able to deal with issues before they grow and turn into invaluable and possibly destructive forces within the workplace. All these components make up decisive behaviour techniques and flow out of an overall orientation toward action – that deep desire to do something, before something is done to you.

Combining it all

Possessing the right set of attributes and having the courage to make a decision, does not mean the work is all done. You should have your own decision-making process, which must take your team and the stakeholders into consideration. There must be a set of steps to incorporate the above elements into a process. 

Of course, this can be tailored differently for each scenario, but my view would be this:

  • Research a situation thoroughly.  Understand the environment (macro and micro) in which the decision will be made.
  • Understand the ‘exam question’.  What are you being asked to do and why?
  • Analyse all the components/factors.  What other issues (unforeseen) do they produce?
  • Communicate your vision/plan to your team.  The people who will be executing the plan must know what they are doing, why, with whom and where they fit into the broader scheme. 
  • Give tasks (and the resources) to your team/subordinates.  
  • Evaluate the effect of your activity a pre-determined points.  Be prepared to adjust the plan if required, but only after detailed analysis…has the situation changed and why?

Have the self-confidence to make a short or long term decision and the fortitude to stand by it. 


Decision making, like leadership itself is a skill that can be learnt.  Decision makers (and leaders) are made, not born.  Therefore, through a process of formal education and experience anyone can master the skills required to make effective and timely decisions.  Whilst many leaders struggle with the self-confidence part of the process, I would suggest that, like any skill, the more you do it the better you will become.  In the sporting world coaches and athletes alike talk about the mystical ’10,000 hours’.  This is the time that successful elite athletes must put into their chosen discipline before reaching the highest levels.  Leaders can do exactly the same.  10,000 hours of decision making might just deliver the next Churchill, Ghandi or Boadicea.  

To lead people, walk beside them.  As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.  The next best, the people fear; the next, the people hate.  When the leader’s work is done the people say: “we did it ourselves”

culture, foresight, influencing, leadership, planning, team development