Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Will Choose Free Will - Executive Decision Making Skills a la Rush

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose free will.
    Rush, Permanent Waves

The Short of It
  • Decisions, decisions
  • We make them every day
  • But some of us are better at it than others
  • Waaaaay better
  • Good decision making skills are a left-brain, right-brain thing
  • And quality is always better than quantity
The Long of It

Assocation executives go to work each day and face the daily decision tree.  Some climb slowly, hugging the center and going out on limbs only when forced to.  Others bounce from limb to limb in seeming abandon, gaining momentum but making no real progress in any one direction.  Still others refuse to climb and spend most of their time yelling at others to stay away from those dangerous looking branches!  And then, there are those executives who climb the decision tree and spend most of their time knocking everyone else out of it.

You know the ones.

Decisions are executive catnip.  Paycheck justification.  Power-trip city. As executives, we get to make lots and lots of decisions. It looked like so much fun from down below.  Big ones, little ones, quick ones, deliberative ones. A veritable cornucopia of choices to mull over and skip between.  Explanations to demand and alternatives to consider.  Lots of things to sign, sign off on, sign up for or put on signs posted around the office.  It's a managers paradise.....except executives aren't supposed to be managers and some of us have forgotten that.

If you became an executive because you love making decisions and now you think you finally get to make all of them, you are in the wrong job.  You should have stayed in the "manager" ranks and not Peter-principled yourself to the top slot. Is that to say you aren't responsible for the organizational bottom line?  Certainly not.  Am I to claim  that decision making isn't a large and mission critical part of the job?  Definitely not.  I've been there. Truly, there are countless decisions clearly within your purview.  Some on the easy side and others you will agonize over in the small hours of the morning wandering from draft email to three-times-reheated coffee cup and back praying for insight and the courage to press the send button.

But why aren't all of those decisions enough?  Why are there executives who want even MORE decision making powers? Why do we waste so much time on protecting our territory or patronizingly lecturing our staff members on what WE would have done...or (more likely) what they did that we NEVER would have done?  If you are an executive who cannot make the shift from manager to leader then I submit to you that for every complaint you have about the board micromanaging your decisions you have a complaint from a staff member or volunteer leader about the very same thing.

If making decisions is such a critical component of our overall job responsibility, why are we so bad at it? Why do we waste so much time making bad decisions or worse, useless ones?  Any executive who has participated in some epic battle over serving risotto at the Annual Dinner has forgotten some very clear truths about the decision making process and how easy it is to mess it up.

The band Rush laid these out for us years ago and I often find myself singing these lyrics in my head.  Sing along with me -

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice - decisions made from the gut.  Some executives depend on their instincts exclusively a la Stephen Colbert.  They are the ones who smugly point to the book cover of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" but never actually sit down and read it.  I blink, therefore I am.  The path is already laid out. It's always been done this way.  I'm the decider.  I just have a feeling.  This is not a democracy. The association gods have spoken and we are going to do x,y and z.  If you are allowing yourself to follow the fates, you are not doing your due diligence.  If you are making a decision and you can't begin to explain why - you are in dangerous territory.  Asking for blind faith from your followers is not leading, it's indoctrinating.

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice - refusing to engage.  Some executives simply refuse to make the call.  You know, I just don't have enough information.  Paralysis by analysis.  I need more study.  More opinions.  More facts.  Not engaging is making a decision to waste your time, your staffs time and your boards time.  You can waffle, ponder, wonder, hesitate and focus group yourself to death but in the end if you are going to exercise true leadership, you must engage.  You may feel completely justified in your insistence that you don't have enough information but the uncomfortable truth is - you never will. If you choose not to make a choice the answer becomes "no" by default and the door invariably shuts. With your noble refusal to not allow yourself to be "forced" into a decision, you effectively pocket veto your one and only responsibility which is to move your organization forward.

You can choose from phantom fears - decisions made from a position of fearfulness.  Fear drives organizations off of cliffs and racks up copious legal fees. Afraid to make a decision.  Afraid to not make a decision. Afraid its the wrong decision. Afraid your timing is off. Afraid you're moving too fast. Afraid you aren't moving fast enough. Afraid to hire. Afraid to fire. Afraid of change. Afraid the mission is too big and too bold. At the heart of any chapter/state/national conflict is some unnamed fear of loss of control. Fear will drive political conflict and territorial disputes. If you allow your fears to drive your decision making process you will default to making decisions reactively and from a defensive position. If you spend most of your time being afraid that others will make decisions you should make you will continually be playing politics and marginalizing your staff and volunteers, not exercising leadership.

And kindness that can kill - decisions you make to "help."  You will do yourself, your staff and your board an immense disservice if you insist on taking decisions away from or continually reworking decisions made by others. You will smother your staff, chase away your A-players and overpower your board if you operate from this patronizing position.  You say you are taking their burdens on for them. Saving them from the pain of governing.  It's so selfless of you.  Why don't they appreciate you?  Could it be that you are interfering in matters that are really not your concern and wasting time better spent on moving your organization forward?  Don't coat your controlling tendencies in the cover of "kindness."  Nobody is buying it and your association is suffering because of it.

I will choose a path that's clear - the heart of decision making.  The truth is, decision making is an inexact science.  It is a combination of left-brain thinking, right-brain recognition, courage and luck.  A clear path uses the best of left-brain process (identify problem, identify stakeholders, define timeline, gather information, develop options, evaluate risk, make decision and follow-up) with a right-brain understanding of the bigger picture, the recognition you will never have all of the information you need and the courage to make the call anyway.  Engage, clarify, understand, make the best decision you can and support others on your team when they do the same.

I will choose free will - the final piece of good decision making is free will.  Free will is accepting your place in the decision continuum and being willing to accept the consequences of any decision you make, shift in mid-stream if necessary and admit when you are wrong. You have the free will to refuse to accept the status quo, to trust your staff, to give your board the best information possible and then let them direct the activities of the association. You have the free will to become the kind of executive that doesn't want to make every decision. The kind of executive who gets the mission and the message and then acts boldly and in the best interests of your members to remove obstacles for volunteers and staff instead of being one. Free will.  Use it.  It won't let you down.

A planet of play things
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
'The stars aren't aligned
Or the gods are malign...'
Blame is better to give than receive

So, what have you decided?


  1. Thank you Peggy! I appreciate the support -

  2. This is a provocative blog that encouraged me to think about the process I use and how to improve it.

  3. Hi Gail -

    It's something I have to think about all the time. I tend to "over-decide" and err on the side of asking for forgiveness rather than permission.

    I operate from the perspective that if I'm blogging about it, it's not because I know so much about it - it's probably because I need to be reminded of those things the most. :D


  4. Aaaah! I knew you were a kindred spirit the moment I met you, Shelly. This quote/song are my personal manifesto, much to the chagrin of my children, who cringe to hear me channel Geddy Lee and sing it at every opportunity.

  5. Lila - yes indeed, we have much in common. I am most stoked to hear you are a fellow Rush fan...I should have known ;)


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