“Let’s get the burrito bowls again. You go first,” I said to my wife. We were at Chipotle, a burrito bar restaurant for the millionth time.
“Brown or white rice?” asked the burrito barista.
“Ummm. … … No rice.” My wife finally answered.
“Black or pinto beans?”
“I don’t know. What do we normally get?” she turned to me.
“Chicken, steak, carnitas or barbacoa?” asked the barista, trying to move things along.
“…” Frozen. The deer stared motionless into the headlights.
“Just get the chicken.” My heart rate began to elevate. It was getting harder to breathe. I could feel the emptiness in my stomach and the line of starving savages was growing behind us. Ugh, we’re never going to eat, I thought.
When I go to Chipotle alone, which is at least two or three times each week, I rattle off my decisions as fast as the worker can ask the questions. Pinto, chicken, hot salsa, cheese, guac. Boom, boom, boom. Keep it moving. I get so frustrated with people who have a hard time making decisions. What’s to think about? Of course my wife would tell you I’m narcotic. “We’re like the only ones in here. Relax. You’re making everyone nervous again.”
In the work world, I’ve learned decisiveness is an attractive quality in a leader. Communicating effective decisions is one of the few behaviorally specific answers to the question, “What is leadership?” I’ve always found it easy to make decisions, but looking back on my career, I realize how I’ve had to grow as a decision maker as the scope and scale of my responsibilities have grown.
Someone told me early on that even a bad decision is better than no decision. The idea is that individual contributors value decisiveness so much that they would rather see their leader make a mistake than fail to make up his mind. Or perhaps senior managers value action so much they wold rather see supervisors fail trying than failing to try. Either way I bought into this philosophy, and developed a shoot-first-ask-questions-later decision making paradigm. I made a lot of mistakes, but learned how to make better quality decisions from each failure. My people could always count on me for an answer. The more I gave them quick and reliable answers the more they turned to me with questions. My managers could also count on me to act, and I gained a reputation for being a worker.
Over time my responsibilities grew. The quality of my decisions became more important, and the consequences of poor decisions were more costly. I adjusted by trying to be risk-adverse. In other words, I chose the more conservative course of action when faced with a difficult decision. I erred on the side of making customers happy by breaking policy, or erred on the side of closing a sale with outrageous accommodations, or erred on the side of keeping an employee happy by bending time off rules. This was a good way to lead by example. I would use our company mission and values as a compass to determine which way to go, and my decisions led others to move towards our mission and values in the same way. This conservative philosophy worked well to a certain point, the point where I realized that each “conservative” decision set a precedent for future decisions. If I could break the rules for one employee, why couldn’t I break the rules for all employees?
At the director level it became clear to me that precise decisions were more valuable than conservative decisions. I learned that precise decisions take time, and that I should delay drawing a conclusion until the deadline. When a hundred people are waiting for an answer, I learned it is better to wait and make the best possible decision based on facts and evidence than to follow my former instinct-based shoot-first-ask-questions-later philosophy. I also learned that even if I did draw a conclusion before a deadline, that it was best to wait in communicating the decision until it was necessary. I can remember sharing policy changes I was involved in developing before they were announced only to see the group’s decision changed at the last minute based on new information.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the limits of leadership. I imagine at a certain level it is impossible to gain all of the information needed for a leader to know he is making a precise decision. I am starting to see that at senior levels of management leaders face decisions only bad outcomes, or decisions that have unforeseen and unintended consequences waiting in all directions of the decision tree. Philosophical paradigms may help, like, “Which decision will lead to the greater good (utilitarianism)?”, or, “Would we be comfortable if this decision becomes a rule for all future like situations (categorical imperative)?” But a certain point must come when the leader must follow his heart. At some point a decision maker just has to do what he feels is the right thing to do.