Leaders Decide

One of my critical roles as a transformational leadership coach is to identify leadership gaps and then (most important) to help leaders shift their thinking and their behaviors. A key step in this process is to arm leaders with awareness and clarity about the ways that they can communicate and lead differently – often using simple perspective shifts and awareness tools.

As you might expect, leaders in an organization or team often struggle when they either first move into a formal leadership role or step up to a new leadership role. One particular challenge area relates to decisiveness (or the perceived lack thereof). For newer leaders, this can be the result of not having much prior experience in making decisions (at least on their own) or from never being empowered to make decisions. They may also have prior negative experiences where they were punished, shamed or criticized for making decisions on their own. You must always remember that everyone brings their prior experiences with them when they join an organization or a team. We might call it baggage, and in some cases it’s literally business wounding.

One particular disconnect for leaders is that they believe they’re being decisive when in fact they’re not (at least in the eyes of another leader or the organization). These situations are particularly challenging because if perceptions don’t align, they’re difficult to change and correct. Specifically, leaders can mistakenly believe they’re making decisions (or offering a decision for consideration) when they’re only offering a thought or an opinion, and there’s a big difference.

Let’s look at what I call a hierarchy of decisions, which highlights whether someone is actually leading or deciding OR instead is actually hesitating to lead or decide while they only think they’re leading. Here is the hierarchy, which relates to any situation where someone has the opportunity to address an issue, resolve a problem or develop a strategy:

  • Thoughts
  • Opinions
  • Framing the Decision
  • Decision (Subject to Being Overruled)

Let’s take a close look at each of these levels.


This is what is says it is. You offer your thoughts on something to another person and leave it to the other person to make a decision. This is often a deferral of leadership and flows from a hesitancy to decide, lead and take responsibility for the decision and the outcome. This type of input is often concluded with this: “Thoughts?” I don’t know about you, but I’m often frustrated by this type of input, especially when I’m looking to someone to take the lead and be more decisive. When thoughts are being offered, it’s really only a discussion – not a decision.


Opinions are similar to thoughts, but they usually include some form of commitment to a position. There is some level of ownership, but it’s not yet a decision, and it’s often offered with deferring language such as “This is just my opinion.” One challenge is that many leaders offer an opinion and think they’re leading and deciding, while their team members see it as an open discussion of opinions, and thus you have the disconnect in perceptions.

Framing the Decision

Framing the decision goes further than an opinion and essentially offers a decision for someone else to approve or bless. In effect, someone else will make the ultimate decision and thereby take responsibility for the decision and its outcomes. Notice again that only framing the decision is a way to defer leadership and avoid or limit ownership. This is a particularly misleading area because the person framing the decision can really believe that they’re making the decision, often while saying or thinking something like “this is not my decision to make” or “it’s not up to me.” The truth is that in many situations other leaders are expecting you to step up your leadership and do more than frame decisions, and they may not explicitly communicate this because they want to see if you will step up and into your own decisiveness as a leader.

Decision (Subject to Being Overruled)

Now we have arrived. This is decision-making and ownership. Even if you don’t have full authority to make a decision, this is your opportunity to stretch yourself, to formulate a plan and decide. This is not about being reckless, and it’s not even about doing first and then asking for forgiveness instead of asking for permission, although that is sometimes appropriate and vital. Rather, this means that you contemplate the issue, formulate an approach or plan, and commit to the decision. All that is left are the actions in alignment with your decision.

In addition to action, this area of decision-making is also about the words you use. If you say, “This is what I think. What do you think?”, that’s not a decision. You’re back at your thoughts or perhaps an opinion. If you communicate a decision, do it with clarity: “My solution is to ____. I’m ready to put this into action.” Then leave it to the other person (if there is such a person) to either let you run with your decision or step in to overrule it.

I often work with leaders who tell me they’re making decisions, but when I hear what they said or read their emails, they are only offering thoughts or opinions (and occasionally framing a decision for someone else to make). If you want to be a leader, you must be prepared to decide. Top leaders in organizations are looking and waiting for their leaders to decide, not just offer opinions.

Be clear in your communication. Be clear with your intentions. Be clear with your ownership and responsibility. Varying on Yoda’s comments about trying, I offer this: Either decide or choose not to decide. This is the realm of leaders and leadership.

thinking woman in front of question marks written whiteboard

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