You can spot a weak leader a mile off by simply looking at the types of decisions they make. Not surprisingly, weak leaders pander to public opinion, they manage the routine rather than the extraordinary, and they worry more about being right than achieving the right outcome. Weak leaders seek the safe decision rather than the courageous decision.
News Flash: safe decisions rarely are. Great leaders possess the courage to not only seek out the right decision, but they also understand the importance of giving others permission to do the same. We need leaders who want others to do better and be better. What we don’t need is more leaders who hide in safe harbors. Leaders don’t get paid to make safe decisions; they get paid to make the right decision.
It’s also important to understand safe decisions are not universally synonymous with smart decisions. In fact, most times the safe decision is a rationalization or justification that attempts to provide cover for what is knowingly a less than optimal choice. Have you ever noticed how weak leaders will often opt for the easy decision while the best leaders have learned to make the tough decisions look easy?
Leaders whose default setting is to “play it safe” do not impress me. Many will read the aforementioned statement as being unduly harsh – therein lies the problem. Organizations have incubated a generation of leaders who believe their job is to make safe decisions, not to rock the boat, and to protect people’s feelings. A leader’s job is to make good decisions regardless of how people feel about it.
I’m not suggesting decisions be made in callous fashion or with reckless abandon, but neither do I believe every decision needs to be hedged, every expectation needs to be lowered, or every constituency needs to be pandered to. While good decisions measure and manage risk, they are rarely risk free. Leaders who look for risk free decisions do little more than cede opportunity to others. The best leaders manage opportunity – not risk.
Following are 5 types of decisions that many see as the safe decision – savvy leaders understand they’re anything but safe:
- The Politically Correct Decision: Smart leaders don’t seek to be politically correct – they seek to be correct. Being politically correct rarely solves problems – it exacerbates them. Real change, not the politically correct version, is built upon seeking the truth, and not some watered-down version thereof. The first step in solving problems is to deal in whole truths, not untruths or partial truths.
- The Talent Decision: I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve witnessed organizations make the safe hire instead of the right hire. The reason companies make bad hires is they compromise, they settle, they play it safe – they don’t hire the best person for the job. Compromise has its place in business, but it has no role in the acquisition of talent. Leaders too often focus on the “nice to haves” instead of the “must haves.” They allow themselves to be distracted by disparate, insignificant factors, rather than holding out for the best person for the job. My definition of irony: when leaders complain about their talent. I’ve always believed leaders deserve the teams they build. Here’s the thing – when leaders make a bad hire they have no one to blame but themselves. If you don’t believe you can hire world-class talent, don’t be surprised when others begin to share your opinion.
- The Values Decision: Rewarding performance over values might seem to be safe or smart, but it is neither. Organizations have core values for a reason – to give them a true north. Organizational values exist to align interests, actions, and direction. Ultimately they exist to create a hi-trust environment where exceptional performance is the rule and not the exception. When leaders make decisions that contradict core values there is a steep price to pay – a loss of trust. When a leaders talks about values, but fails to act on or defend them, the entire enterprise is placed at risk. The best leaders have a zero tolerance policy for actions and/or decisions that constitute a violation of corporate values.
- The Managed Decision: Many leaders believe if they can manage enough aspects of a decision then it will be safe to make. When decisions are over-managed they tend to be under-effective. Leaders need to stop managing decisions and just make them. I’ve always said, “managing expectations is gamesmanship – aligning them is leadership.” Smart leaders offer a compass they don’t draw the map. Think guidelines – not rules. Think surrender – not control. Build the right team and have the confidence to allow decisions to be made closet to the point of impact.
- The No Decision: While it may seem safe to not make a decision, it’s probably not. The reality is, not making a decision is still a decision – it’s usually just not the right decision. Avoiding a decision doesn’t mean you’ll avoid the issue; you’ll likely just exacerbate it. Great leaders don’t find safety by sticking their head in the sand; they find safety in consistently making good decisions. However the greatest security is found to teaching others to make great decisions and then granting them the responsibility and authority to make them.
The best leaders don’t play it safe, they don’t look the other way when something is wrong, and they don’t compromise on values. They do the right thing. Thoughts?