Indecision is almost always worse than making a bad decision.
On the first day of summer in 1941, Joseph Stalin stood resolutely at the head of the table in defiance of his generals. With numerous legitimate reports of almost four million Axis troops, led by Adolf Hitler, marching into western Russia, the Soviet dictator had brushed it off as nothing more than “a provocation.” As these reports quickly became a reality, he had a decision to make. But he did not issue clear orders to his officers, and when the invading forces attacked, the Russian Red Army was grossly ill-prepared. Stalin had been paralyzed by shock and was incapable of making decisions that could have accelerated the end of the war. Instead, he retreated into seclusion for a week and allowed the Nazis to wage a five-month offensive that would result in almost five million Soviet deaths.
We’ve all heard of and been victim of analysis paralysis—when you have so many decisions in front of you that you can’t decide what to do. It can be as extreme as Stalin’s indecision or as trivial as scrolling through Netflix for hours, deciding what to watch. The Soviet blunder, of course, is a deadly example of indecision. But the lesson here is clear. If you make a bad decision, at least you’ll have data to work with. Assuming your mistake is not fatal, you’ll have experience to look back on and learn from. You might even get lucky and stumble upon success through your mistake. But indecision can take a horrible situation from bad to worse, and as a leader, it will cost you your reputation, opportunity, time, and trust. In Stalin’s case, he was saved by the massive advantages of the Soviet bureaucracy, military manpower, vast landmass, and a cold Russian winter. But not all of us are Russian dictators. So, when you don’t have these types of advantages, how do you mitigate the costs of indecision in the first place?
To become a more decisive leader, you must master these three areas:
Be clear about your vision. Establish your organizational Schelling Point. In the absence (or overabundance) of communication or information, ensure that you and your team are aware of what the end goal truly is, so you’ll always know what to do when in doubt or under abundant stress.
Be willing to take risks. As a dependable leader, you must build your risk tolerance. Most indecision results from inability to come to terms with risk. You won’t always make the correct decision. But if you take informed, decisive action and it turns out to be wrong, you won’t be caught off guard—you’ll have already calculated the downside. Your level of risk tolerance will determine how fast you can iterate and recover from bad decisions.
Be willing to own your mistakes. Ego isn’t just the enemy. Ego fuels the enemy. If you don’t listen to the experts around you or to your subordinates on the front lines, you will be trapped in a hall of mirrors of your own creation, allowing your competition to take advantage. Again, don’t expect to be perfectly correct every time you make a decision. When you are wrong, and you will be wrong often, own it. Stand up, accept responsibility, and work to fix it. By taking decisive action based on reasonable information, your team will be much more willing help you find the solution.
Don’t confuse being decisive with being fast. Rushing to make a decision without fully understanding the situation can be just as harmful as making no decision at all. As with many aspects of leadership, you must strike a balance to be effective. In leadership, you must be decisive when you need to be, but only make decisions when you have to.
Practice decisiveness in small, seemingly inconsequential situations. Like scrolling through Netflix or sitting in the drive thru staring at all the options on the menu. Your ability to make a decision firmly will serve to build your decision-making muscle for larger, more consequential situations. You can even transfer the practice of small decisions to the real world. Small decisions with low downside can be the best approach to decision-making in absence of sufficient information. But when in doubt, remember that indecision costs you reputation, opportunity, time, and trust. Remember Stalin’s mistakes. And remember: even a bad decision is better than making no decision at all.
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