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Tuesday, December 7, 2021
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Leading with Character: Decisions Matter

The decision to leave Afghanistan was a monumental one. The consequences of that decision are now playing out worldwide, at both the strategic and tactical levels. It’s a prime example of how much a single decision can matter.

I’ve seen many definitions of good leadership, and what qualities define a good leader. Seldom is decision-making included, yet it is one of the most impactful things a leader does. Perhaps decision-making is left out of the equation because it’s complicated. Leaders of character need to understand the decision-making process so they can “do the right thing right.”

Decision-Making Steps

There are a number of steps to consider when preparing to make a decision, and here are a few that have served me well:

  • Define the desired end state or outcome
  • Analyze alternatives
  • Build the team that will execute and specify roles
  • Anticipate and prepare for downstream effects and unintended consequences
  • Manage risk
  • Clearly communicate intentions
  • Make the decision and properly execute it

Doing the Right Thing Right

Decision-making and execution go hand-in-hand; you can’t decouple them. Whether a decision is “good” or “bad” is not so much the issue; it’s whether or not the decision was executed properly to achieve the desired outcome without unintended consequences. A leader can make a good decision that results in a bad outcome if it’s not properly executed. That’s where anticipating and preparing for the downstream effects and unintended consequences comes in. The U.S. armed forces use a tool called wargaming to simulate possible scenarios. This helps them anticipate and prepare for the unexpected.

Often, leaders get caught up in focusing on the aspects of a decision they can control. Leaders who want to achieve their intended outcome without unintended consequences need to look over the horizon when analyzing alternatives. They should surround themselves with people who think differently and whose perspectives are shaped by varied experiences. They must have the situational awareness to scan for and prepare to address forces beyond their control that might jeopardize their success. They need to then manage the risks, and clearly communicate their intentions so everyone knows what to expect.

Accepting Responsibility Requires Moral Courage

Leaders of character prepare well before making a decision, using steps such as the ones I listed above. They develop a solid plan for execution, which is a separate process. In the end, Leaders of Character demonstrate the moral courage to take responsibility for their decision, the execution, and the outcome. It’s a package deal.

Look in the mirror. When a decision doesn’t turn out like you expected, do you take full responsibility without shifting the blame?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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