Most of us formulate notions about leadership based on the bosses we’ve had and the leaders we’ve seen in action, both in real life and the media—even if they were bad role models.
Our beliefs about leadership may include expectations of wisdom; knowing how to navigate various challenging situations; and envisioning what an organization should accomplish in the world, holding fast to that vision, and motivating each employee according to their needs so that they can see it too. But leadership can also include exercising raw power, making demands, riding roughshod over everyone, moving fast, or not caring who falls by the wayside. There are loads of terrible and unrealistic models of leadership out there.
So, what kind of leader are you? Although it’s important to have general business acumen and be able to make presentations in front of groups, there are other, perhaps more elusive traits or skills that can really pay off. Curiosity is necessary because you don’t know what you don’t know—plus it helps you learn a lot. It’s necessary to be willing to buckle down and put in the time because people want to see you doing your leadership work—it proves to them that you’re really committed. But two other factors are really crucial, although you may not be able to deduce them from the models you’ve seen: Leaders need to be able to demonstrate decisiveness and clarity. This is true whether you’re a junior employee with ambition or a senior leader who isn’t getting the results you’d like to see.
Decisiveness Requires Maintaining Balance
Skillful decisiveness entails being able to balance between prompt action vs. overly urgent action, setting the tone and vision vs. making everyone’s decisions, and acting like a loner who cares nothing about what other people think vs. taking others’ opinions so deeply into account that you become hogtied. Think of decisiveness as the ability to choose, and then act on an option based on the available data. Decisiveness is most effective when it comes from an established set of values and beliefs rather than from personal preferences. It’s vital to know when it’s time to take the shot.
We all hate it when leaders change their minds based on whomever talked with them last. Or when they delay decisions, waiting for perfect evidence or tealeaf reading that’s never available or not specific enough. Or they can’t make a decision without polling the group—and, given the norms of group dynamics, that means letting the assertive, loudmouth, or secret power types make the decision for them.
Here’s what it means to be a decisive leader: People know exactly where you stand on an issue, policy, or action. They understand what you want from them and know how to behave in front of you. Being decisive creates and sustains leadership, whether you’re a hierarchical leader with formal authority or an emergent leader with influence or social capital. Either way, others look to you to know what they should do.
Decisiveness Demands Clarity
Leaders who create clarity explain decisions so others can act on them, whether those decisions are solely theirs to make or come from the hierarchy above. It means you make the decision even if it’s a tough one you know people will find hard to accept but you don’t stop there. You explain why it matters, share relevant information that supports your decision, and show how your decision connects to the vision and values of the organization.
Good leadership is about working through other people rather than doing things by yourself. Without clarity, the likelihood of people getting things right is small and based on luck. That’s why leaders are obligated to explain their decisions and directives, even if they’ve explained what’s happening many times before and people should already understand.
When it comes to clarity, one of the biggest pitfalls is to assume that your colleagues or team members will get what you’re thinking without your putting in the time and effort to articulate it explicitly. It’s remarkably easy to assume that others can read your mind, understand your motivation, and recognize what you want and expect.
Stay Focused on the Big Picture
If you’re uncomfortable explaining your decision—or you can feel yourself trying not to be completely clear—it’s often because you’re afraid of creating conflict and disagreement or making others unhappy. It’s completely reasonable to have these concerns—just don’t let them stop you.
In simple terms, ground yourself physically and stay calm. Then remind yourself how the decision you’re about to make public is linked to the group’s goals and the vision and values you share. Connect your discussion to the greater good, whether that’s improving care for customers, creating fairness for employees, or keeping a proud commitment to organizational growth and success.
Referring to the big picture will help you get clear about what you need to say—and that’s usually more compelling than relying on personal preferences or commanding people to take action because you say so.
Onward and upward—