When is decisive leadership required?
Most of the time, we recommend empowered change. That means those impacted by the change are included from the start, are able to participate in designing and testing the solutions and have a real voice at the table when it comes to making decisions. There are a few times that we don't recommend this approach and think that decisive leadership is absolutely necessary.
1. When someone dies
We'd love to say this never happens, but the reality is it does. For me, the first time was when I was only 18 years old. I was one of a group of students that had coordinated a camp for first year students and we'd had an excellent time relaxing at the beach, playing games of cricket and getting to know our new uni friends. A few days after we got back the tragic death of one of the students we had been away with made it on to the front cover of the local paper. Everyone saw it. Everyone was in shock. We might have been very young, but we knew we needed to do something quickly. We did consult with a grief counsellor who advised us to do something decisive and to bring people together. The very next day we held a forum for all of the students to come together and talk about what had happened. We had grief counsellors in place and his parents attended to tell us more about what had happened- the things that had not been in the newspapers. This for me has always been a turning point in my understanding of the human elements of work. If someone dies, do not wait. Do not consult everyone. Get a grief counsellor on board and get some quick action. It's needed.
2. When the vision is so big it can only be delivered by one person
Sometimes there is a vision so ambitious that others might not be able to see it just yet or think it is only a pipe dream. Sending man to the moon. Pulling out of a war. Universal healthcare. With big visions there is a need to reassure and that can mean decisive leadership that is unwavering in approach. This doesn't mean that we don't consult on how to get there- we need all kinds of thinking to pull of something big. But laying the foundations and telling people we are going to the moon no matter how big the challenge or how unlikely our success? That's a job for a decisive leader. Tell everyone we are going, then ask them how to get there safest.
3. When the decisions are transactional.
Transactional decisions do not need consultative leadership. Consultative leadership is needed for things that are new, complex, which impact on people or are about the structures that support the way in which transactional decisions can be made. Once we have that in place we don't need to consult on every decision that comes our way. Transactional decision making is often the kind of consultation that governments are perceived that they should be doing and it can be tempting as it can be perceived as being inclusive, but consultation on transactional decisions is a waste of everyones time. If systems and laws are in place that guide how a transactional decision should be made, then make that decision. A better option to encourage inclusivity is to invest heavily into consultation up front to design the systems, policies and programs. Once that is done get out of the way and let those with accountability for decisions to make them without the need to check in all the time.
4. When we are upholding the law
If someone is about to break a law (or already has) it's not the time to be consulting. Stop the action, escalate and formalise when needed, then talk about what happened once the immediate situation is in hand. I don't mean a citizen arrest- think safety, corporate governance, making sure that workers have the right working with children checks etc. People don't often break laws without reason, but that reason isn't always obvious. Perhaps they didn't understand what was required? Perhaps they need more training? Perhaps they aren't suitable for the role? Perhaps the law isn't a good one? All of those things can and should be worked through after the immediate situation is in hand.
5. When there is a stalemate
No matter how well we engage and consult as leaders, we will find stalemates. We aren't looking for consensus, we are wanting to understand our options and move forward when we have all the information to make a good decision. There will be times when people don't agree. When that happens it is the role of the leader to be decisive so that we can move forward. This doesn't always need to be making the decision directly- it could be putting something to a vote or getting an independent decision maker- but it does need to stop the deadlock.
6. When things are going on too long
There are times when change processes just go on for too long and fatigue starts to set in. It might be a multi-year project or a strategy that has been sitting on the shelf and everyone has lost interest. If fatigue has set in being decisive is important. Move things forward with the best information- sometimes closing things out or skipping ahead to give everyone more time to move on to better projects is more important than sticking the course. Death by consultation is real.
7. When the culture is at risk
A good leader will know when a change is so off course that the team is about to go on strike or quit. There are indicators. Sick leave goes up, productivity goes down. Bullying complaints go up, morale goes down. When this happens it is important to act. There is no change worth putting any team through this kind of working environment and if even if you do manage to pull it off, it's unlikely to stick. When culture is at risk (and especially staff safety) call it and act decisively. No change is better than no morale or even worse- no team left.
8. When you have clear and compelling evidence
Evidence isn't always the factor to consider when leading decisively- there are a number of things to be considered including the likelihood of change sticking, team culture and the business case needed to get the resourcing required. When clear and compelling evidence does exist it is important to ask yourself and be clear on any reasons why you might need consultative change. If the evidence is still clear and compelling even after weighing up the other factors it is time to lead decisively. Consultation for the sake of consultation is a waste of everyones time and resources. If there is nothing to consult on, don't. If people think they have a say but actually there is only one real possible answer, tell them truthfully. It's better to truthfully deliver a message than to feign consultation to avoid conflict.
9. When you are balancing an imbalance
There are times when things are so imbalanced- for example the low numbers of women or minority groups involved- that you might just need to be decisive. Unfortunately unconscious bias is a hard thing to deal with- and sometimes blatant discrimination is still in play. When that happens decisive leadership might be what is needed. I'm saying might because this will depend on the organisation and the level of imbalance. Safety is important and addressing things quickly by righting an imbalance without addressing the systemic and cultural problems that underpin the organisation can set things up to fail. We need quick action supported by a safe work environment and processes and consultation might get you there quicker. Experience tells us that this isn't always the case and if we rely on consultative processes alone to balance and imbalance we'll be waiting a long time. It's important to know when to consult and when to make a decision. Setting your expectation about what a balanced future should look like? That should always be decisive leadership. There should be no room for imbalance in a modern workplace. This is 2022 after all.
10. When you want to be decisive
Empowered change is important and part of that empowerment is leaders themselves. Do we recommend consultative leadership most of the time? Yes. Do we think that decisive leadership has many personal empowerment qualities and can be a really effective change tool? Also yes. Should you be a dictator that doesn't ever consult? Absolutely not. Lead the way you want to that suits you best. There will be times for consultation and times for being decisive. Lead honestly and with integrity, involving other people as needed. Get all the information you need to be informed and make good decisions. If you are decisive and find out later that you've made the wrong decision then you can always change your mind. Honest leadership with flaws is better than trying to get things perfect all the time. Even the best leaders make some mistakes.