By Kent Ingle
The choices you make will determine the life you live. That was drilled into me by every mentor I’ve ever had. I try to carry on the tradition by telling those whom I mentor today the same thing.
Sometimes making a choice seems more difficult and complex than it should be. Every time you try to decide, you have this gut feeling you’re not ready to decide or you’re not sure which one is the right decision. So, you decide to postpone making the decision until you have more time to think about it, more information, or better insight into what you hope to accomplish.
It’s easy to spot this behavior when you see it. I call it “decision avoidance syndrome.” Please know this is not an actual medical diagnosis, and I’m not a therapist. But leading people can feel like therapy sometimes. And this is one of those times. When your desired outcome becomes avoiding the decision at hand, you have decision avoidance syndrome.
There are several reasons why “decision avoidance” sets in:
- You fear the consequences of a particular decision.
- You don’t’ have enough information to make a decision.
- You don’t’ want to be accountable for a decision that may result in a not so ideal outcome.
- You are a decision avoidance ninja whose entire goal is to avoid making any significant decision.
The struggle is real. I get it. Some days I just want to stop “adulting,” too. Life can get rough at times, and it can certainly be unforgiving. But a leader leans into outcomes and accountability rather than avoids it. Every decision has a consequence. If you’re going to lead yourself and others, you need to get comfortable with sometimes you’re going to make the right decision and sometimes you won’t. (The good news is most decisions aren’t fatal—even if it seems like it at the time.)
But I think there is a much more fundamental reason why leaders avoid decisions, and I believe this is the heart of the matter. It’s hard to choose anything without clarity around what you want to take place and where you are headed. That sounds simple and trite, but it’s true. It’s hard to measure progress when you don’t have any intended outcome outlined. (And if you’re intended outcome is to drift through life avoiding the tough decisions, then you’ll never experience the adventure that is right in front of you.)
Lack of clarity creates friction when it comes to deciding on anything. You must know what you want to determine where you need to go or what you need to do next. And that means picking a direction and marching toward it until the battle is won and the war is over.
So here is how to reduce the friction of making a decision:
- Accept the reality that every choice brings with it some degree of friction. Decisions are catalysts that tease out and reveal if what you say matches what you do.
- Make regular time to plan. It’s the only way to have clarity around where you are, where you’re headed, and what it will take to get there. Whatever time you invest in this will be worth it.
- Outline (on paper) what you want and when you want to achieve it. Those milestones will serve as focus points for you as you make the long journey of leadership.
- Review your situation with a mentor. I would be remiss to not include this one. I can’t state enough how important it is for leaders to mentor and be mentored. You can’t do life or leadership alone. Period.
- When all else fails, pull out a blank sheet of paper and create a decision tree. Follow each possible decision to its logical end. I call this back of the napkin logic. But it works. (Just make sure you grab a few extra napkins. It always seems to take more space than expected to get to finish the exercise.)
The Paradox of Decisions and Leadership
The paradox is you’ll find energy in your ability to choose and decide. Action creates momentum. There is time to mull over an idea, and there is time to act. Just go for it. Don’t get caught up in the idea that you might make a decision from which you could never recover.
I just have to say after decades of leadership I may have only seen that happen two or three times. It’s hard to make a decision that’s fatal. So don’t allow fear to inhibit your ability to find clarity and lean in to whatever change you want to see take place in your life, job, community, or world true.
Leadership isn’t all glitz and glamor. The truth is everyone else is looking to you for guidance and direction. They will take their cue from you. If you avoid choices, they will too. And that behavior will have significant ramifications on culture and your ability to achieve the outcomes you desire.
I’ll offer you one last piece of advice. I’d rather you make the wrong decision than making no decision. Again, criminal or unethical behavior is far beyond the scope of what I mean. But leaders who have a bias toward action are always stronger than those who don’t. So, err on the side of doing rather than on the side of avoiding. You’ll be a stronger leader, and the people around you will have more confidence in you.
Dr. Kent Ingle serves as the president of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. For more leadership content, check out KentIngle.com.