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Decisive Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Willie L. Patterson III
June 6, 2022

Nothing irritates employees more than an indecisive leader. They are constantly thinking about a path forward, considering alternatives, but take an inordinate amount of time to make a decision. The field of “Public Administration” is partly defined as the “accomplishing side of government” which implies mission execution. Additionally, any protracted decision-making frustrates stakeholders. One of the fundamental skills of an effective leader is the ability to make decisions.

Great leaders understand how to balance emotion with reason and make decisions that positively impact themselves, their employees, their customers and stakeholders and their organizations. Making good decisions in difficult situations is no small feat because these types of decisions involve change, uncertainty, anxiety, stress and sometimes the unfavorable reactions of others (Great Leaders are Great Decision-Makers – A Peer-Reviewed Academic Articles | GBR (pepperdine.edu)).

“Leadership decision making process is always crucial and at the center of all businesses in our world today. Barret, Balloud and Weinstein (2005) described leadership decision making in organizations as the process of “using critical thinking skills to optimize a decision” (p.214). Leaders must know what decisions to make and keep the interest of all stakeholders involved. Followers will be less committed to the team if their leaders doubt the decisions they make in the organization.” (236414463.pdf (core.ac.uk)).

So, how does an organization develop a decision-making system that ensures timely decisions are rendered? I often borrow from the Commanding General of the Corps of Engineers who is now retired, but once told me the 85 percent solution is good enough. Analysis paralysis only leads to bashing from citizens and lends itself to more ridicule from the public—hence the negative stereotype that often labels an organization as a “bureaucracy” full of red tape. How then can we make decisions in the public sector that demonstrate a timely thought process?

Dawn Onley (2019 How Leaders Can Make Better Decisions (shrm.org)) says you should choose a process and style that fits the situation. She lists four commonly recognized decision-making styles:

Directive. The leader uses his or her knowledge and past experience to reach a decision without seeking information from others. The advantage is that decisions can be reached quickly; the disadvantage is that the leader might not consider the long-term ramifications.

Conceptual. The leader seeks ideas from team members, which encourages creativity and innovation. This style is suited for long-term projects and planning.

Analytical. The leader relies on direct observation, facts and data.

Behavioral. The leader collaborates with others on options and is highly influenced by their feelings and opinions. The downside: If a consensus can’t be reached, the leader must choose a different approach.

I learned in my Business Law class in 1982 a process for decision-making that I tweaked as a leader. The four-step process for reviewing legal cases allowed me to analyze cases presented to us in our class, which gave me a process for analyzing legal issues. Borrowing from legal case studies, I labeled my decision-making process I.R.A.C. First, I assess the Issue (I) at hand. You must have the ability to synthesize issues as a leader. I often refer to this as the most critical part of a decision. Issues can be confusing—therefore clarity is imperative. Since most public organizations don’t leave much to the imagination, I always insisted on review of the regulation (R) for policy guidance. There is usually a policy or regulation for any technical or personnel decision at hand. A solid decision for me is regulatory based. When no guidance is available, we have the opportunity to develop policy and guidance. Of course new policy has a process of its own before it is codified.

The third step in the decision-making process is to Analyze (A) the current policy. Does the current policy answer the question at hand? This is an area where a leader can become paralyzed in the process. A leader or employee has to examine the regulation—interpret the guidance. Once you are able to analyze, you can then present a recommended path forward.

Carol Williams, in her 2014 article”5 Steps to Avoiding Analysis Paralysis“, says one of the five steps is to construct creative constraints. She reminds her readers of the “Parkinson’s Law which states that a task, no matter how simple, will take as long as we allow it. For example, if you have a month to refine your risk assessment processes, you’ll take that long when in reality it could be done much quicker. Setting firm deadlines can help rein this in. You can put this deadline on your calendar, set a reminder on your phone, or even tell the person or persons when they can expect a decision or output from you.”

Rendering a path forward decision from your conclusion (C) delivers an output—a decision, execution. Sometimes writing the conclusion is delayed for various reasons—often it has to do with a fear of making a final decision, still doubting your thorough analysis of the question. Your conclusion is critical, thus, fight urges to delay, and procrastinate decisions! Your stakeholders are awaiting a decision, your team needs a decision. Good leaders are decisive!


Author: Willie L. Patterson III, Ed.D is a part-time Professor with The University of South Alabama where he teaches in the Master of Public Administration program. Email: [email protected]

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