Presumably you make decisions all the time, in managing your matters, selecting strategies and tactics, and of course outside the work environment as well—with your spouse or significant other, family, and pets; in the context of your church/synagogue/club/neighborhood; and on and on. If you’re in a position of leadership at your firm, you make different types of decisions, and more of them, than you did before you joined management.

We’re here to talk about the management/leadership decisions you make.

Typically, they have several common characteristics:

  • You are often deciding between or among options that are equally—but differently—attractive. Similarly, they both or all may have equal—but different—perceived defects.
  • The decision you’re facing is often “new” in the sense that you haven’t faced this particular question or one a lot like it before. If you’re a litigator, who to depose is a familiar decision; if transactional, whether to acquire for stock or cash. I’m not saying they’re simple but they’re recurring. The decisions I want to take about rarely recur.
  • Also, each of your available choices invariably brings its own executional, tactical, or prudential challenges: When to do it? How to announce it? How to explain the rationale behind it (understanding you will be talking to both proponents and opponents of whatever selection you’ve come up with)?
  • Speaking of proponents and opponents, how much consensus among your partners and those who will be affected do you seek or need? Virtual unanimity? Solid backing? No “over my dead body” opposition? Or simply your own unilateral fiat as manager?
  • Finally, and this may be the hardest for those of the lawyerly temperament, how do you know when you’ve gathered enough data and information to decide? Couldn’t you have always pursued one more angle, sought one more opinion, run down one more option? (Yes, you always could have, is the answer; but that just re-states the problem.)

What puts this discussion at the top of my mind is, not surprisingly, a recent experience.

The governing body (think the Executive Committee) had to choose a new leader for the organization, to replace a popular but time-limited interim head. Custom dictated that the new leader could essentially serve indefinitely at his/her pleasure; in the history of this organization, no incumbent leader had ever faced an outright challenger and all seemed to understand that the only ground for replacement was somewhat akin to impeachment for high crimes. So the choice would have lasting consequences. (I have changed some details to keep this organization unidentifiable here.)

After an exhaustive review of all plausible candidates, over 50 in all (drawing from inside and outside the organization), and extending over 18 months, the committee was down to two leading finalists, A and B. Decision time!

Only they could not decide for the life of them.

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