What stops people making decisions?

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“The Eurozone must have a decisive plan”, declared David Cameron this week. And of course he is right. The EU has signally failed at reaching conclusive agreements and taking decisions.

I am struck by the large number of people I have spoken to in the course of my recent work who face similar challenges in making decisions, whether individually or collectively within their teams.

What is it about decisions that makes so many of us put them off until things reach crisis-point, and we can no longer sit on the proverbial fence? Looking at the origin of the word ‘decision’ provides some insight. It shares its roots with the word ‘incision’, but rather than meaning to cut into, it means to cut away, literally to cut off our options. And this is the heart of the problem; to take a decision always means facing up to losing something. In the case of Europe this is clearly the integrity of the currency, or the continued inclusion of Greece, or the need for financial restraint. Whichever way the decision goes, something that is valued will be lost. So until things reach absolute crisis point, it’s easier to put off the decision.

And this is equally true for us at a personal level. Avoiding making a decision may well allow us to feel that we’re keeping our options open, that we’re avoiding getting it wrong, or that we’re avoiding having to deal with the fall-out from the people we’ve had to disappoint. Yet while we may feel better in the short term by avoiding our fears, the one thing we can be sure of is that we are no longer taking a lead. Rather, events will start leading us.

To cut off options of course demands courage and the willingness to deal with the anticipated negative consequences. As such it lies at the very heart of good leadership.

"Be willing to make decisions” said General Patton. ”That’s the most important quality in a good leader." And for those of us involved in developing young leaders, whether in our own or our clients’ organisations, creating the conditions where they can practice making decisions and cutting off their options in relative safety is absolutely key.

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