Leadership Art: How Great Leaders Decide

When it comes to leadership one thing in particular divides the gods from the mere mortals, the men from the boys, the women from the girls: the ability to decide and to then commit to your decision.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s harder to make decisions nowadays because of the complexity of the world, the accelerating pace at which change occurs and the inordinate amount of information to distill.


If you’re a great leader you:

  1. Have a very clear vision of where you are leading your organization
  2. Have clearly defined strategies, each of which is directly tied to the vision
  3. Evaluate options based on whether they serve your organization as part of your strategies, or whether they perhaps shed light on new strategies that can be leveraged to advance toward your vision
  4. Are never afraid to ask for additional information when it’s needed
  5. Conscientiously evaluate risk involved in the decision, and the risk tolerance of your stakeholders
  6. Seek insight and input from your leadership team and your trusted advisors


And then you decide. In the words of the Greek goddess Nike, you “just do it.”  (She did say that, right?)

It’s no coincidence that Nike, as the goddess of strength, speed and victory was thought to be best friends with Athena, goddess of wisdom and also of strategy when it came to the art of war.  A great leader portrays the best of Nike and Athena when they:

  1. Make a strategic decision
  2. Commit to the decision
  3. Communicate the decision
  4. Champion the decision
  5. Hold others accountable to executing according to the decision


We’ve all been in organizations when the leader has been unable to make a decision, unable to communicate next steps for an organization or to commit to a path.  Often times these leaders think they have the best interest of their organization at heart: they “don’t want to make a “rash” decision” or they are “trying to get as many members of their teams ‘on board’ as possible” with one direction or another before deciding.

Despite their best intent I think delaying a decision past its “tipping point” – the point at which it becomes clear a “threshold” has been reached in regard to timeliness – is damaging to an organization.

  • The leader appears weak – that’s just all there is to it
  • Team members begin to silently question the leader’s ability and/or the leader’s commitment to the vision
  • Team members begin to question the leader’s ability vocally amongst themselves
  • A sense of uncertainty sets in, which if not quelled can lead to organizational fear
  • If the decision becomes severely delayed, “myths” start to pop up in the organization about what the end result will be
  • And ultimately, no matter the decision, the internal impact of the lack of decision – for however long it lasted – is hard to counteract because of the preceding points


If you’re a leader you must excel at the art of deciding. Indecision and an attempt to appeal to everyone signal lack of vision and weakness. Period.

Or am I wrong? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments…

Photo is Decisions by Steve Webel.


  1. Lisa,

    You’re absolutely right. In a military context, a bad decision is often viewed as better than no decision at all. Failure = feedback. Courage is at a premium in too many organizations.
    Hans Hageman´s last blog post ..More High School Football

    • Hans,

      Thanks for the context: failure = feedback. That’s an excellent point and you’re right about courage – it takes someone courageous to see this and accept the fact that regardless of the outcome there will be insights gained. When someone reminds me of this I always think of Edison and how much he appreciated failure because it got him closer to success. If only more leaders would operate like this… Thank you so much for the comment!

  2. anyone presenting this argument,

    “it’s harder to make decisions nowadays because of the complexity of the world, the accelerating pace at which change occurs and the inordinate amount of information to distill.”

    Is afraid to act and is being guided by fear.

    In my mind one of the main reasons why great leaders are capable of making decisions, is that great leaders also have the vision to quickly realize when the are wrong, admit it, and change the decision.

    So many people are wrapped up in the EGO of being seen as “right” all the time, it cripples them from making decisions and becoming a leader at all.

    Great article and message Lisa.

    Well done.

    • Jeremy,

      I couldn’t agree with you more in regard to the fear. I wonder about whether it’s insecurity that sometimes drives this as well? Perhaps that ties in to the need that you mention to be seen as “right” all the time, which I don’t think is humanly possible – or even inspirational, quite honestly. And I love how you use the word “cripple” – that’s the perfect word for the situation we’re talking about – and for what it does to the organization.

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Jeremy – they mean a lot to me!

  3. As soon as I read this portion of your post…

    “I’ve heard the argument that it’s harder to make decisions nowadays because of the complexity of the world, the accelerating pace at which change occurs and the inordinate amount of information to distill.”

    I immediately thought of one word: Excuses

    And not to keep using quotes in my responses Lisa but…

    “Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure. ”

    From someone who has worked in two Fortune 500 companies to places that had less than 10 people to all points in between, I have seen every single kind of “leader” imaginable…

    And the word “leader” was more often than not a major misnomer… (wasn’t he in M*A*S*H? Oh, wait that was Major Burns, my bad)

    But big or small or medium inept leaders come in all shapes and sizes for sure…
    steve olenski´s last blog post ..September 11th – Not Just Another Day

    • Steve,

      Do you have this plethora of quotes in your head? Taped to your wall? You’re an encyclopedia, my friend – I love it! :)

      Yes, excuses – I am inclined to agree. Though sometimes I need to step back and ask if I’m really being unbiased because I am very much an “action” person and I find the greatests amount of fulfillment in making big things happen.

      Thank you, as always, for sharing your wealth of knowledge!

  4. Robert Townsend gets the credit for this observation.

    ‘You can judge a leader by his ability to generate superior results from his staff’.

    The book is Up the Organization. Maybe out of print but worth hunting down.


  5. Outstanding post! You presented a terrific summation of why great leaders are in fact great. And I totally agree that decision-making today isn’t more difficult. It just seems that way because pseudo-leaders are afraid of articulating a strategy and a course of action — they fear being held accountable for their decisions.

    “The one there first gets the most” is the nugget that we need to remember as leaders. Get your facts, nail down your strategy, communicate to all stakeholders and then execute, execute, execute!

    • Kevin,

      Thank you for sharing that nugget and for sharing your thoughts. I absolutely love how you talk about getting the facts, nailing down the strategy, communicating widely and then making it happen!! I, for one, loathe standing still. :)

      So grateful that you took time to stop by and comment!

  6. Jerry smith says:

    a great leader is one who become directed by a solid vision, having been a follower himself, he understands the pitfalls of failure and success, so he;s not afraid to fail, and he continues forward with a plan that has been carefully analyzed, and he strike forward with certainty.

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