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Leaders Don’t Waffle When Waffles aren’t the Right Decision

If you’ve ever gone to lunch with someone who couldn’t decide what to order, you know the pain of indecision. While you, everyone else at the table and the server are quietly on standby, that individual is thoughtfully considering whether it’s a quinoa-bowl kind of day or a full-on loaded burger event.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

So, following Roosevelt’s advice, you have to go with the quinoa. But some decisions are more difficult. I once knew a National Forest supervisor who was leading hundreds of employees who were feeling the punch of an emotionally charged public campaign against the organization. Although the insults were directed at national policymakers, local workers were feeling like they were getting beat up every day by the bully in the schoolyard.

The situation was so disruptive that the region assembled a public relations crisis management team to assess the problem and offer a strategic response. The team came back with its best three plans and made a presentation to the forest leadership team. The group was moving toward one particular plan of action; however, the person at the top wanted more time to think. The next day was oddly quiet, as many waited ready to launch onto whatever path this supervisor was willing to take.

Finally, when pressed for a response, he reported back that the best path was to do nothing, not a public education campaign, not a meeting with those individuals outside of the organization firing loud insults, not an internal motivational seminar, not even a chicken nugget of inspiration. Nothing.

What many don’t realize, doing nothing is a decision; just as “no comment” to the news media speaks volumes.

As one would expect, the verbal attacks persisted and the public servants continued to feel pummeled. You can imagine how a constant barrage of abuse and no apparent support from leadership can affect morale, health and productivity.

In business, we are all constantly being served up a vast menu of options. However, research shows successful leaders can quickly sort through choices. They make decisions and move forward promptly. Here’s how they do it.

They identify the problem.

This may sound simple, but the real problem can be buried under a pile of symptoms, just like it’s sometimes hard to find the salmon bites under a plate of linguini. Babbitt Ranches President and General Manager Billy Cordasco says, “With environmental concerns, we do this a lot. For example, a large, destructive wildfire is a symptom of an unhealthy fire-adapted ecosystem. Focusing on the problem until there are no symptoms to be addressed is solution oriented.”

They narrow the field of solutions.

Having too many options can be overwhelming and create analysis paralysis. It’s like having a food truck of entrees when a “small plate” of wontons will do. Having a mentor, a sounding board, an advisory council, an experienced consultant or a wise friend with exquisite culinary taste can sort through the choices and make a case for a few good options. Consider the last time you were asked, “Does this make me look fat?” Wouldn’t you rather have a few reasonable choices from which to select? Successful leaders narrow the field of acceptable solutions. They also know that black is slimming.

They don’t look back.

Leaders exude confidence and motivate those around them. They form a plan and move forward. That’s because they’ve done the mental work of following the path of possible decisions from beginning to end. I once participated in an experiential leadership course in Northern New Mexico. One task demanded teamwork and strategic planning to move everyone in the group through a maze of ropes, without touching a single fiber, in an allotted amount of time. This exercise was extremely effective in teaching the importance of thinking through an entire plan of action before implementing it physically, and then following through. Leaders have confidence in their decisions because they’ve already done it once in their heads, they don’t over-analyze and they aren’t afraid to take action.

If they make a bad decision, they make another decision.

You may know companies, relationships or governments in which individuals spend valuable time trying to find out who made that bad decision. The blame game is not fun, wastes time and creates a culture of fear. Ultimately leadership is always responsible. If action doesn’t lead to the desired result, it’s time for a different action. The quickest way to move forward is for leadership to acknowledge the problem and make another choice. I’ve found it especially effective to just claim the mistake, whether it’s yours or not. This pulls everyone off the dark path of blame and hyper-speeds them onto the glowing road of action.

Decisive leaders quickly assess the problem and possible solutions. They choose and communicate clear direction supported by reliable information, and motivate others to achieve a desired result. If further information reveals the decision was flawed or new circumstances require a change in direction, they make a new decision without looking back at who’s to blame, unless Karen orders raw oysters for the team again in a country without a food and drug administration. FBN

By Bonnie Stevens


Bonnie Stevens is a public relations consultant. She can be reached at bonnie.stevens@gmail.com.

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