We can all recall moments of regret, especially when they relate to decisions we have made that didn’t quite get the results we were looking for. Perhaps it was a word that should not have been spoken, or an act that cannot be undone.
This shouldn’t be confused with decisions that have to be made where there are difficult implications for others, or where a situation demands the truth to be spoken even if we know it will be unpopular – or worse, we become the target of other people’s dissatisfaction, anger, and resentment.
1. Sometimes there are sound economic reasons that lead us to make decisions that will impact our employees and their families, and disappoint our customers. There is no fun in letting staff go or reducing the goods and services our customers have come to enjoy and depend on.
2. It is not easy sitting down and letting a competent, high-performing employee know that you have chosen to fill the vacant senior leadership position with someone else because the other person has better interpersonal skills, and people gravitate to his or her leadership.
There are four classical virtues that are centuries old, and as Alexandre Havard reminds us, they are absolutely critical to leadership.
He argues that our commitment to live them out in every dimension of our lives (no matter the personal cost) strengthens not only our reputation as a leader of great character, but also begins to shape our vision of the world and desire to see people flourish under our leadership.
The four classical cardinal virtues are prudence, courage, self-control, and justice. They are called “cardinal” because the Latin word cardo means “hinge”. All other virtues hinge on, or depend on these four.
Making the “right” decision
The first classical virtue is prudence. This relates to the leader’s ability to make the right decision, irrespective of the situation’s complexity or simplicity, or the cost.
This is not the same as making the best decision. Often what is best for one party is not necessarily the best outcome for another.
Furthermore, if subjectivity, good intentions or the affirmation we seek from others become the primary lens from which a decision is made over the importance of determining what is right, then the virtue of prudence is not present.
It doesn’t matter where we live. We see this tension play out every day. Whether in our political or corporate domains, or in our educational, health, and religious institutions, in the public or private sector, we are confronted with the conundrum of doing what is right regardless of the cost – personally or corporately.
Revelations of scandal, corruption, rumour, abuse, and cover-ups have led us to second-guess authority, and it is perfectly understandable.
We must rediscover the essence of leadership and redefine the nature of authority and its practice. According to Havard, there are three steps involved in making a prudent decision:
1. Deliberation – this involves gathering all relevant information to analyse it critically. This includes sourcing information in such a way to avoid making a decision with prejudice;
2. Judgment – this entails carefully considering and evaluating the information gathered from a range of different perspectives; and
3. Deciding – making a decision.
In their groundbreaking handbook and classification of character strengths and virtues, Peterson and Seligman substitute prudence with “wisdom and knowledge” from which five character strengths or traits originate.
These are considered to be the psychological processes that define virtues, and include creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, the love of learning and perspective.
These processes help us to see that making the right decision is more than a leader merely making a spontaneous or impulsive decision.
It tells us that a leader takes decision-making very seriously because he or she is aware that there are often considerable implications that result from them.
It demonstrates the importance of reflection, taking the time to explore alternative solutions, being open to hearing input from others, and genuinely seeking to understand the situation at hand from a range of different perspectives that help.
In his outstanding book, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organisation, Daniel Patrick Forrestor captures the importance of reflective thinking, not only for leaders, but for organisations as well.
He believes it is absolutely vital that organisations promote think time in order to facilitate stronger decision-making cultures and to avoid the mistake of limiting key decisions to a small number of powerful leaders.
He states “decision-making becomes correlated to rank and the perceived power to ‘make things happen’. Ideas that are never vetted simply get passed by, as the tempo of daily operations means that people must ‘move on’ and deal with what is before them.”
The bias towards action and activity, combined with unprecedented amounts of data to process, means that organisations must find mechanisms to force think time and reflection.
One final note concerning the virtue of prudence is that its essence is rooted not only in what is right, but that it cannot be devoid of action or indecision; good intentions or meaning well is simply not enough.
Rather than knowledge existing for knowledge’s sake, the virtue of prudence transforms it into prudent decision-making. If we support Pieper’s notion that prudence is interchangeable with the word “conscience”, then it is also possible for us to conclude that failure to make a decision and act on it reflects a lack of conscience and of virtue.
When virtues are absent, and in this case, prudence, the opposite occurs.
Vice gradually takes its place, and a leader’s insecurities and self-interest (no matter how well rationalised or denied) catapult an organisation towards what Jim Collins calls the “Five Stages of Decline” or contribute to the emergence of what Patrick Lencioni calls “silos, politics, and turf wars” that quickly destroy the confidence of colleagues and turns them into competitors.
As Gilbert Meilaender aptly states, “virtue enhances vision, vice darkens and finally blinds”.
What’s the bottom line?
It is important to realise that we make hundreds of decisions every day, and many of them have significant implications for our businesses, employees and colleagues, our families and key relationships, and our customers and constituents. Some important questions you might like to ask yourself include:
1. What is the key motivation behind my decision?
2. Do I have enough information to make a decision, and have I looked at this from a range of perspectives?
3. Have I adequately considered alternative solutions?
4. Do I have a plan to manage the implications of my decisions on others?
5. How does this decision reflect on my character?