Making decisions in a leadership role is hard. In today’s world, there are few easy choices. Most decisions can be argued from either side and are rooted in a mix of assumptions and incomplete data. Leaders must have the skills to sort through the all of the complexities and noise — and, ultimately, pick a path.
Nuanced decision making — navigating ambiguous trade-offs — is critical to effective leadership. Yet it’s not an intuitive skill for most. So how do effective leaders “navigate the gray?” How do they manage through that murky land where most decisions fall – because they impact a person, because they didn’t have all the information, because the current difference in choices seems negligible but the future impact might have unintended consequences?
The answer lies in approaching complex decisions with both ownership (willingness to make a tough call) and openness (actively listening to opposing views). These two traits are difficult to display simultaneously, but they’re the key to navigating the gray.
The Corporate Executive Board survey sums it up well in their research: Effective leaders make decisions as “informed skeptics.” At Insight Experience, we’ve found that these informed skeptics have certain things in common:
- They apply judgment to analysis.
- They have a point of view.
- They listen to others.
A well-respected CEO of an IT services company (that I had the pleasure of working closely with for almost a decade) once confided to me that the decisions he made most easily often did not turn out well. Why? Because he wasn’t open and, therefore, missed the complex and difficult implications of his choices. On the other hand, he said the best decisions he ever made were the ambiguous ones he wrestled with the most. As a result of his experience, he has consciously cultivated his ability to own his decisions and still be open.
He’s learned — and our work has shown repeatedly — that being forced to navigate the gray improves the decisions you make.
Jean Williams has more than 20 years of experience in executive and leadership development and management consulting. She is a professional facilitator and a certified executive coach, and she has years of experience designing, developing, and delivering educational programs for executives and senior managers. Jean’s delivery work with Insight Experience focuses on leadership development, strategy execution, and behavioral observation and coaching.