The LeadershipZone for better leadership

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The LeadershipZone: better decision-making in complex situations

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In the LeadershipZone, the leader’s role is to make decisions: often quite rapidly and with sub-optimum information or resources.   I’ve always been fascinated by decision-making: in this complex world, how can we make better decisions, faster and more often?

the role of leaders: deciding the direction

Let’s start by exploding the myth that every decision is going to be, indeed has to be, ‘right’ every time, or from everyone’s point of view.  Let’s not set ourselves up for failure; it’s irrational and unrealistic to expect too much of ourselves and others: whether in the realm of work, business, politics or family relationships.  There are shades of grey in every situation.

Key Elements

With the layers of complexity we face, one answer will not resolve every aspect of the issues and challenges that face us.  It’s often said that there are three key elements – we may need to prioritise one:

  1. Timing or time: meeting deadlines; checking off milestones on the way
  2. Quality: aiming for perfection vs. ‘good enough’
  3. Cost: shifting deadlines or changing the specification always impacts the cost

For many situations, there’s a fourth key element: safety – which will impact on all the others if neglected.

Changing an agreed specification is ‘mission creep’: someone in the chain adding complexity.  Where there are many stakeholders, each additional requirement has the potential to add to time, quality or cost – if only in working out its implications.  Uncertainty itself has a huge cost: in stalled activities, while we wait for decisions, or emotionally, such as peoples’ commitment.

Stakeholder Relationships

It can seem easier to focus on time, quality and cost, than to influence relationships.  By looking at the people issues, we can see where some of the challenges lie:

  • People with power: who want to flex it, or are influenced by others
  • Technical people: with access to the latest solutions, or ‘better ways’ of doing things
  • People with money: customers or sponsors who enable  or withhold access to resources
  • People with networks: who act as gate-keepers to wider influencers

We try to manage these conflicting and competing pressures by establishing methods of working: systems, processes and protocols, and yet there’s yet one more ingredient in this mix.

The Leader

I work with a number of leaders who work in maintaining, or replacing equipment.  This means they take over a piece of infrastructure, used by other operators, such as utilities, rail infrastructure and hospital services.  Often there’s a designated access time – overnight or when infrastructure use is low – to minimise disruption.

When services aren’t handed back on time, there’s often a financial penalty, as well as loss of trust and respect. Expecting a team to speed up their work following an unexpected event is unrealistic, yet many people rely on  teams working at 150 or 200% efficiency in order to make up for lost time.  The opposite is true: when people and teams are put under pressure, the only thing likely to increase is the potential for more things to go wrong.

complex situations require people, project & decision-making skills

When they do go wrong leaders can really come into their own: creating resilience in the face of challenge.

Many project teams use a ‘traffic light’ system, moving from green to amber when the unexpected occurs.   Decisions made at ‘amber’ are more likely to be sound than those made under pressure when the situation is about to turn ‘red’.  Our brains are under less pressure, and we can still access the range of options and alternatives available to us from past experience.  We are more likely to be able to judge and balance the relative importance of different stakeholder relationships at this stage.  When we are under the greater pressure of ‘red’ situations, our focus is likely to be narrowed, adrenaline-fuelled, and more fear-focused.

8 steps for better decision-making

  1. Know yourself: trust your past experiences
  2. Grow your resilience: know how you operate under pressure; when your decision making skills are at their best and weakest
  3. Understand other peoples’ perspectives: your best judgement may not necessarily align with their views
  4. Build positive relationships: good relationships with teams, colleagues and customers are great investments
  5. Acknowledge when things are going wrong: timing is vital – bring issues to the attention of the right people at the right time
  6. Be clear about your decision points: clarity about what you decide and why ensures you use your best judgement
  7. Be sure about your priorities: assess which element to prioritise over another
  8. Use every situation as learning: engaging everyone in the review step builds a learning culture

Each of these steps uses your emotional intelligence: self-awareness; self-management; other-awareness & relationship-management.

Resilient leaders need an inner compass

Good leadership means displaying resilience whatever happens.  The LeadershipZone is not a single element: it’s made up of a complex mix of managing projects and people, building relationships with stakeholders and having confidence in our personal experience. 

It requires emotional intelligence, and the ability to recognise that not everything can be perfect, including decision-making.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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