Deciding how to decide

"Choices are the hinges of destiny."

- Pythagoras (570 BC - 495 BC), Greek philosopher

Only time will tell if Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, did the right thing in putting Greece’s economic future to a referendum.

On-line opinions are mixed on the appropriateness of the referendum with views ranging from “democracy at its finest” to “abject abdication of responsibility”.

The current crisis in Greece reminds us of the difficultly all leaders must continually face. Deciding how to decide.

There is not often a clear answer on the best approach to take when faced with a difficult decision…if only someone could create an algorithm! Having observed some fantastic leaders over the years, I’ll take a shot at some guidelines for what I see as three basic choices.

#1 – Just decide (A.K.A. - The Autocratic Approach)


  • Speed - one person making a decision can save time when urgency is needed

  • May demonstrate strong leadership, decisiveness.


  • Buy-in may take longer or be more difficult to achieve

  • More risky for the leader if the decision turns out to be the wrong one

  • Requires one person to have all the relevant facts

When and how to use this approach:

Use this approach when a decision is needed quickly; when there is a high degree of change in the organization and it is too soon to share all the relevant information and/or when you are truly the best person with the needed facts to make the decision. Using this approach does not mean that you can’t consult the team – au contraire! One of the best leaders I worked with had an extraordinary talent to hear his team out, get all opinions, ask questions and then make a decision when he felt it was his to make. This led to a very high level of buy-in and a team that felt valued and respected.

#2 – Let the people decide (A.K.A. - the Democratic Approach…or Greek referendum approach)


  • Perceived as most fair

  • Lower risk to leader if outcome is bad

  • Can lead to high level of buy-in and engagement


  • Can take longer

  • Can be perceived as “abdication of responsibility” (see above)

  • Risk of ties with no decision.

When and how to use this approach:

Use this approach when the impact to the team is high but the stakes are lower. Be prepared to stick with the majority. Nothing will kill your credibility faster than advertising a democratic approach and then backtracking because you don’t like the outcome.

#3 – Let someone else decide (A.K.A. - Delegating)


  • Can provide “stretch” opportunity for individual or group.

  • Demonstrates trust.

  • Useful when more research is needed.


  • Requires longest lead time.

  • Risk of “analysis paralysis”.

  • Can also be viewed as abdication in high stakes decisions.

When and how to use this approach:

Use this approach when lead-time is longer and when research or extended consultation is needed and will lead to a better decision. Delegation may be to an individual or a team (task force). Task forces can be beneficial when stakeholders span organizational groups. A strong chair or lead should be appointed to keep things moving and reaching that final decision. Either way, the leader still plays an important role as coach and check-in point especially when the task is given as a stretch assignment. Help to set your employee(s) up for success through the process.

In every case (and surely there are various permutations and combinations of these approaches) the key to success is to communicate clearly the rationale for the decision-making process. Let those impacted feel confident that the right people and approach were used and any change will have a much great chance at success.

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