Monday, May 9, 2016

The Theory of Decisiveness: Ten Principles of Decisive Leadership

Leadership has many traits to enable and support. The author of this blog post covered many such traits in an earlier blog post. Reference may be made to the post, “Leadership Qualities and Skills: Opportunities, Challenges and Enigmas”, Strategy Musings, November 6, 2010 ( Amongst such several traits, decision making, or decisiveness, is a key trait; so much so, decisive leadership is referred to as a distinct category of leadership. Decisiveness is the ability to take decisions quickly, resolutely and firmly. Decisiveness does not mean taking random or snap decisions. Decisiveness means, in a leadership practice, taking considered decisions. Leadership is all about converting a vision into reality through an organization, which requires decisions to be made by leaders all the time.

While there are several leadership styles, leaders are required to be decisive in all the styles. Only the style of decision making varies across leadership styles. One stream of thought says that apart from being focused and agile in decision making based on available information, one can be flexible (adaptive to situations), hierarchic (taking hierarchy based decisions) or integrative (taking into account multiple points of view). The first approach makes use of little or minimal information while the last approach tends to get weighed down by enormous amount of data and information. The other two fall in between based on the dynamics of context and the extent of hierarchy, respectively. While there could be other ways of linking decision making styles to overall leadership styles, decisiveness can be seen as being prompted by ten different dominant competencies.

Decisive by nature

Certain personality traits such as emotional dominance, self-belief, self-worth, social boldness and task orientation imbue certain leaders with a natural tendency to be decisive. Such people use internalized data and their personal predilections to make immediate and compulsive decisions when they encounter new situations or problems. They may not be intolerant but they will be certainly impatient. Such leaders are unlikely to retract decisions or retrace their actions. Their nature makes them pile up decisions on their teams in general. The unique nature of naturally decisive leaders is that they can be decisive even in the face of little information; a situation not too infrequent in real life situations.  It could turn out to be a big advantage in such situations.

Decisive by authority

Some leaders wield, and live by, abject power. Authoritarian leaders are almost like military generals; whether they have strategized their actions objectively or not, they make it appear that all their mandates stem out of their authority. They are very conscious of their formal and informal boundaries of power. Authoritative leaders struggle with millennial employees and knowledge workers but could excel in domains marked by wide and deep spans of control, like infrastructure projects by virtue of their resonant leadership. They are unlikely to be very collaborative but could excel when organizations are structured to clearly reflect boundaries of power and authority.

Decisive by intellect

Some leaders are very intellectually driven; they possess knowledge and respect knowledge-seeking. They look to validate the data they receive, the interpretations they make and the decisions they take through the knowledge they possess; and if they find the knowledge at their disposal to be inadequate they do not hesitate to collect additional knowledge to validate or modify their decisions. Their nature makes their decision making slow but they tend to make exceptionally sensible decisions in areas driven by intellectual matters such as product and manufacturing innovation, patenting and futurism. They could do exceptionally well in technology-intensive industries.   

Decisive by experience

Most leaders have loads of experience. Only some, however, make their decisions purely out of experience. Leaders who decide based on their experience are visualizers and extrapolators of what it takes to achieve a goal. Such leaders are well suited to taking follower firms on paths taken by pioneers successfully. Leaders of this ilk are pretty quick in decision making but could also be failing to respond to new situations due to their preoccupation with their previous experiences. They could be needlessly biased by their experiences, both positive and negative. Most leaders are likely to belong to this class, thinking and behaving through their prior experiences.

Decisive by intuition

Intuition is one of the important hallmarks of successful leadership. Leaders are able to stand by their visions mainly due to their intuition. Leaders acting by their intuition may be intellectual, experienced and task oriented but they may not using any of these faculties unless they feel intuitively supported. Such leaders surprise their teams as well as competitors with their intuitive decisions, which not surprisingly pan out fruitfully. The author has posted a perceptive post on intuitive leadership earlier: ”Educated and Experienced versus Instinctive and Intuitive: From Conflict to Synthesis of Four Leadership Essentials”, Strategy Musings, May 10, 2015 (

Decisive by goals

Goals are the critical drivers of company performance. Leaders who swear by goals tend to be obsessively focussed and occasionally missing wood for the trees, especially when business contexts keep changing. Such leaders are appropriate to drive turnaround as well as growth in stable economic environment. Such leaders are unlikely to be respectful of lead times required by diligent processes.

Decisive by incentives

A whole lot of leaders belong to this category. With emergence of variable pay, performance bonus, profit commissions, stock options, and long term incentive plans as new ways of incentivizing leadership performance, leaders tend to take decisions and pursue actions which are incentive friendly. Leaders belonging to this class tend to take speedy decisions and be oriented towards short and medium term. Such leaders tend to excel in turnarounds and priming growth stories. Per contra, it is unclear if such leaders help companies build long term value in their businesses.

Decisive by process

Leaders who still have strong legacy of structured management stand profoundly committed to processes. They believe in structured planning, guided execution and programmed management. For them, process integrity is paramount; they believe that right results follow right processes. Process oriented leaders particularly excel in quality and compliance oriented industries such as pharmaceuticals, food processing and semiconductors. Process oriented leaders also excel in ensuring high standards of corporate governance in their firms.

Decisive by recognition

Some leaders are inspired by the opportunity to carve a place for themselves in halls of fame. While they are driven by some of the various faculties and traits described above, and are motivated by goals and incentives etc., they are literally actualized by the potential of standing out in the crowd of leadership. Dhirubhai Ambani, who established the Reliance Group, belongs to that rare breed of entrepreneurs who liked to leave a legacy of bringing equity culture to the common man, dwarfing all other Himalayan achievements of his.

Decisive by people

And finally, there are leaders who are decisive standing by the people. Mahatma Gandhi is the unparalleled example of leadership dedicated to people, and seeking final fulfilment in serving people. Socio-economic equity, social harmony and equitable distribution of wealth are their primary drivers. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda are other notable leaders of this worthy, and hard to follow, leadership. Eminent entrepreneurs like Jamsetji Tata established industries to generate employment.

Leadership mix

Just as no two businesses are identical, no two leaders or two leadership styles are also identical. Logically, multiple businesses require multiple leadership styles; the same business may require different styles in various phases of evolution. All of the ten decisiveness templates discussed are appropriate in one context of the other. Admittedly, being decisive is only one, albeit very important, link of the leadership value chain. Anticipating, evaluating, interpreting, deciding, detailing, resourcing, aligning and executing are the other links of the leadership value chain. It is worth noting that all the other links too entail decision making in one measure or the other. A major responsibility of a leader is not only being decisive but also ensuring that the rest of the organization is decisive. Individual leaders always find it a challenge to tackle institutionalized indecision. Optimal leadership mix  lies in ensuring that autocracy and authoritarianism are not deployed to break indecision or discussions and debates do not stymie decision making.

Leaders should not only set the tone but also utilize a whole set of traditional corporate structures and systems to reflect a culture of decisiveness throughout the organization. Structures such as executive committee meetings and processes such as strategy and budget reviews can be utilized by leaders to demonstrate how it pays to be decisive. Decision oriented dialogue, rather than either hypothesis or theory oriented discussion, is a great way to embed a culture of decisiveness in an organization. Boards and Founders who select leaders, internally or externally, must be savvy to select leaders whose decision making style matches the business context, in each case. A seasoned leader must also recognize that he has as many as ten great endowments in him or her to be decisive. By selectively and contextually deploying them he would make great contributions to a firm.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 09, 2016