November 6

Should You Be Decisive or Deliberative? By Rich Tyson

Business, Operations, Recruitment, Vision


Much has been written regarding the importance of decisiveness as a critical leadership skill. Decisiveness is the disposition to make decisions, even in the face of uncertainty and complexity. Indeed, decisive leaders are often needed most in times of uncertainty and complexity.


When I reflect upon the extraordinary leadership attribute of decisiveness, I am reminded of the overwhelming burden that General Dwight D. Eisenhower carried as he gave the “go” command on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Uncertainty and complexity were at a level few decision-makers have faced before or since. It took a man of extraordinary courage to set in motion 175,000 soldiers and 50,000 vehicles on over 5,000 ships over 100 miles of open water into the teeth of a determined, deadly enemy. Winston Churchill called it “the most difficult and complicated operation ever to take place.” Thank God for the decisiveness of General Eisenhower!


Clearly, many of the freedoms, technologies, and advantages we enjoy can rightly be attributed to decisive leaders. However, like many other important character traits, decisiveness can be counterfeited. Having a bias for action can slip into a Ready, Fire, Aim mentality. As one observant comedian once put it, “Let’s not do something we’ll regret later—let’s do it now!”  The key here is to be decisive, but not impulsive.


So, let’s swing the pendulum the other direction: You should be deliberative, right? Deliberative leaders have a disposition to slow things down, to refrain from quick decisions and knee-jerk reactions.  They often have an intuitive feeling for the downside of precipitous actions, recognizing that unnecessary problems and costs are often the byproducts of an under-developed strategy.


Deliberative leaders still recognize that time is often of the essence, that windows of opportunity can and do close. However, they are able to distinguish where real urgency exists versus that which is contrived through unbridled enthusiasm for action that trumpets the benefits of action without counting the costs. In this regard, a strong deliberative leader will routinely do two critical things: (1) ask incisive questions that facilitate the development of strong strategies, and (2) entertain the frank feedback of others, even when those ideas oppose his or her own.


The first of these behaviors addresses the content of the strategies being considered. It is generally important to ask open-ended questions which require the responding party to elaborate on their ideas.  Such questions should address: (a) what are the desired outcomes of the actions being considered, (b) what has been done to this point in time, (c) what has—and hasn’t—worked, (d) what new strategies are being considered, (e) what are the expected benefits of those strategies, and most importantly, (f) what are the likely costs of those strategies.


The second behavior, that of entertaining the feedback of others, addresses the process of strategy development. Author M. Russell Ballard has wisely advised us to “counsel with our counsels.” This means creating a non-negotiable expectation with your team that their input is expected and appreciated. This is shown by actively listening to their ideas, and incorporating them liberally as they lend viability to new initiatives. This builds rapport and buy-in, and eliminates one of the most common and insidious criticisms of the decisive leader: that of ego, arrogance and unwillingness to solicit the input of others.


Deliberative leaders deserve much credit for the development of strong, effective action plans. Unfortunately, however, they too can easily slip into a counterfeit: Analysis Paralysis.

The desire to collect all pertinent data morphs into an excuse to never move.  To avoid this, the effective leader must have clarity regarding the time he or she has to make the decision, and when it is time to decide, DECIDE!


This leads to the answer to the question posed in the title to today’s article: You should be both decisive and deliberative. The aforementioned General Eisenhower was a master of this challenge.


At the end of May, 1944, he entertained the concerns of his British air advisor, Air Vice Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who doubted the wisdom of dropping two airborne divisions into the Cotentin region of France. Leigh-Mallory was adamant in his opposition to the chosen strategy, predicting the decimation of the paratroopers involved.


In spite of noting later in his memoirs that he “had no need for experts at this late time,”  Eisenhower listened, after which he went to his trailer to ponder the advice he had received. He later described this as his most worrisome moment of the war, saying “It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-racking problem.” He recognized that if Leigh-Mallory was right, many of his men would die an unjustifiable death. But he also knew that if he cancelled the air-drop, the landing at Utah Beach would have to be scrapped. He agonized over his decision, but then, recognizing that it must be made, he concluded: “There is nothing for it but to go.” He ordered Leigh-Mallory to “see to it that his own doubts and pessimism not be spread among the troops.”


History bears out the correctness of Eisenhower’s decision, but right or wrong, he had the courage to make it. Was he decisive? Undoubtedly. Was he deliberative? Without question. Many months of deliberation preceded D-Day, and even on the eve of the invasion, he entertained the inputs of his advisors.


  1. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  This type of cognitive dissonance is, sooner or later, the lot for each of us as leaders. May we each rise to those occasions as both deliberative and decisive leaders!


Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.


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Rich Tyson

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