I used to assume that quality decision-making was an innate leadership skill, more a matter of instinct and personality rather than something learned. Turns out, I was wrong.
Recently, I read Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Decisive, which explores the nature of decision-making, delineates the inevitable bias that inflicts most decisions, and offers practical advice that can lead to better decisions. The authors target the primary villains that lead to bad decisions:
- Leaders too often narrow decisions to an either-or scenario, thus precluding the use of imagination to discover another path;
- Leaders are subject to the confirmation bias–locking in on a solution and then cherry-picking evidence that supports the solution;
- Leaders often let short-term emotion influence their decisions;
- Leaders tend to be over-confident about the outcomes of their decisions.
In short, leaders are human and can fall prey to subjectivity though they are quite clever in making those subjective, often illogical choices look quite rational.
Research has shown that a diversity of perspectives actually leads to better decisions. The senior administrator with the contrarian view may exasperate the rest of the leadership team, but the fact that the group culture allows him to express his views without fear actually results in a better outcome. The naysayer who is always dampening enthusiasm for an idea by asking, “Now what can go wrong here?” is actually forcing the team to set aside its rosy projections and look at the possibility of a downside. In both cases the transparent culture, a culture of trust and honesty, promotes a diversity of opinion, which in turn leads to better decisions.
So how does a head of school establish such a culture?
First, know yourself. What behaviors push your buttons and why? Which is more important to you: learning or being right? Do you need to maintain control? Do you use power reflexively or intentionally? Self-awareness is a good thing for anybody; but for a leader, it is essential because it allows her the possibility of checking her worse default behaviors.
Second, establish a culture of trust in your meetings by intentionally applauding divergent thinking. The first head of school I worked for told me, after a contentious administrative meeting, that “efficiency is the enemy of effectiveness.” In making this comment, he gave me a clear signal that honest dissent was not only welcomed, but also expected. When meetings veer into uncomfortable questions, contrarian perspectives or alternate scenarios and things get messy, the desire for resolution only increases. However a head who allows these kinds of discussions is protecting the very foundation of sound decision-making. It’s true that teams can fall prey to “analysis paralysis,” but the leader blinded by the “efficacy of efficiency” is sending a powerful message to the team–alternative views are not valued. Thus, the seeds are sown for flawed decisions.
Third, look for an opportunity to be wrong during your team meetings. Yes, you read that right. Be wrong! Most people equate leadership with power. They sometimes defer to the head unnecessarily, and see their roles as good lieutenants who execute the commands of the general. To jolt them away from this deeply held assumption, the head needs to be wrong, acknowledge that’s she wrong, and applaud the dissenting voice. This is one of those defining moments when power takes a backseat to the “best idea wins” culture. It is a strong signal that power is not the supreme value, but making the best decision is.
Peter Drucker once famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This has certainly been the norm in my career. Culture can either enhance positive change or kill it. Thus heads must navigate an existing school culture in order to bring about meaningful change. But heads can influence culture as well. They do this by modeling behavior that signals an unswerving commitment to finding the best answer. This process begins with self-awareness, a genuine desire to learn from others no matter how difficult, and the self-confidence to be wrong.