News & Insight
January 2008

Characteristics of Effective Leadership: Decisiveness

Tim Morin

In our last newsletter we described WJM Associates’ Leadership Point-of-View by highlighting seven characteristics of effective leadership. As a quick review they are: Authenticity, Decisiveness, Strategic Acumen, Vision, Humility, Talent Selection, and Coaching and Feedback. To see the full article, as well as best practices for developing effective leaders within an organization, please click here.

The next several issues of the WJManagement Advisor will each include an article focusing on one of these characteristics. In this issue we address the second of these seven: Decisiveness.


Subprime mortgage troubles, the dropping dollar, rising oil prices, capricious stock markets – 2008 looks to be a volatile year for many industries and many companies.

The rapid pace of business and increasing time pressures mean that dealing with the speed and complexity of all this volatility and change has become an everyday challenge. In this environment, leaders will be judged more heavily than ever on whether the decisions they make help or hurt their companies.

The best leaders make sound, defensible decisions in a timely fashion, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty. Managers at all levels of the organization are involved in constant decision-making and the quality of these decisions (both speed and soundness) accumulates and decides the fate of the organization. Executives perceived as indecisive or poor decision makers will quickly lose the confidence and commitment of their team.

A leader’s ability to make a high percentage of good decisions is fundamental to the effectiveness of the individual and the success of his or her organization. So how does an executive maximize his or her batting average when it comes to making the right decisions?

By viewing decision-making as a process and not an event.

The Process
The dangers of taking too long to come to a decision are obvious. However, leaders must also consider the dangers of deciding too quickly. Leaders who make mostly good decisions recognize that it happens as a process, not at a single point in time. The process employed by successful decision-makers entails the following:

  • Gather information from a broad range of sources.
    Lots of research suggests that a diverse group of independent thinkers with access to sufficient information will consistently make better decisions than even the smartest CEO can. The decisive leader avoids existing in an echo chamber of their own opinions and pays attention to thoughts that differ from his or her own.
  • Foster constructive conflict.
    The Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that “Truth springs from arguments amongst friends.” This is true, as long as the arguments occur in the spirit of collaborative problem-solving, and not just lobbying for entrenched positions. The leader should encourage participants in the decision-making process to share information widely, preferably in raw form (rather than selectively to advocate a position), to allow others to draw their own conclusions. If the process is viewed as a contest between different views, rather than a collective effort to test and evaluate alternatives, then it quickly devolves into a test of strength, where innovative thought is suppressed and participants are encouraged to go along with the dominant view to avoid further conflict.
  • Honestly consider the alternatives.
    When a leader considers many alternatives, he or she engages in more thoughtful analysis and avoids settling too early on easy, obvious answers. However, just giving others a chance to voice their views is not enough. If they feel their voice was never really heard or honestly considered, this will lead to resentment and resistance to the final decision. While not every participant can prevail in the process, it is critical that the leader makes it clear to other stakeholders that they had a genuine opportunity to influence the outcome. This means the leader should convey openness by actively listening to and investigating the alternative ideas presented.
  • Don’t dominate the process.
    People who talk first and talk the most, tend to have an inordinate influence on a group’s collective opinion – even if what they’re saying makes little sense. If the speaker is a charismatic CEO or other leader, then the likelihood of slanting the debate is even greater. The leader should avoid disclosing their personal preferences too early in the process or suggesting that their minds are already made up. Otherwise the process will stop in its tracks.
  • Test assumptions.
    The leader must be able to discern between “facts” that have been carefully tested and those that have been merely asserted or assumed. Seek input from helpful contrarians who ask hard questions that can trigger healthy debate and be open to fine-tuning after the decision is made in case the assumptions turn out to be wrong.
  • Make a clear yes/no decision and thoroughly explain it.
    Making the right decision is meaningless if no action comes of it. In order to give credence to your decision and effectively mobilize the people and resources you need to put your decision into practice, you must clearly explain the thought process behind the call and convey how each participant’s input affected the final decision. Be mindful that different people process messages differently, so be concise and strive to avoid ambiguity in your communications.
  • Stay involved with the execution.
    A decision that is not successfully executed is a poor decision, no matter how much thought went into it. A decisive leader doesn’t simply “pull the trigger” and move on, but rather stays engaged with the execution, asks for continuous feedback on the results (and makes adjustments if necessary) and provides active support of those involved in carrying it out.


Of course, in the real world, leaders must make decisions at the speed of business without always having the luxury of vetting every possible alternative or securing the thoughts and buy-in from every disparate party. Effective leaders deal with ambiguity every day and can decide and act without always having the complete picture. However, by acknowledging that a decision should not be treated as a discrete choice that is made by an executive at a single moment in time, but rather a process that unfolds within an organizational context, the leader vastly improves the odds of making the right decision and successfully putting it into action.

The Most Important Decision of All

The most leveragable, and therefore the most critical, decisions are people decisions . Having the right talent around you is the most fool-proof way to ensure good strategy calls are being made and that the best judgment is being exercised during the inevitable crises. After all, making the right people calls all but ensures that good decision-making is occurring throughout all levels of the organization.

Tim Morin is President & CEO of WJM Associates, Inc.

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