Leadership Skill of Discernment


The culture of compromise is often accepted as the price of mass. But in fact, this is the crowded road to popular acceptance, and it works far less often than the compromisers believe it will. - Seth Godin*


Ours is a world where we are saturated with information, which we are expected to absorb and respond to, often instantly. Not only must we respond, but the expectation is that we will make decisions with wisdom, with justice, with compassion and with a whole array of other values. - Loretto Gettemeier, D.C.**


Making the Best Decisions


A big part of leadership is decision making. I advocate for not making decisions in a vacuum. Leadership is establishing a culture of excellence. Leadership is building a team of leaders. Leadership is a collaboration building synergy.


Despite all of those things I've said about leadership and collaboration, the leader is ultimately responsible for the decisions. Discernment is a key leadership skill.


Having written guiding principles is essential for the leader to have discernment in making effective decisions. There should be guiding principles for the leader personally and guiding principles for the organization, the team, the board, for any group or person working and making decisions. These principles provide a lens for viewing the issues and for guiding the decisions.


As the second quote above points out, we have lots of data coming at us rapidly. This only complicates our decision making process. Therefore, I have created these 3 principles for anchoring myself for making the best decisions:


1. Perspective: This is the most difficult of the three. We have so many things coming at us, it’s important to get away from the tyranny of the urgent to understand the consequences of each decision. One great tool is the 4 quadrants taught by Stephen Covey. The 4 quadrants are: Urgent and Critical; Urgent and Not Critical; Not Urgent and Critical; and Not Urgent and Not Critical. Planning our work helps to keep us in the Not Urgent and Critical quadrant. Unfortunately, we spend too much time in the Urgent and Critical quadrant wasting time and energy by losing the choice of the best timing to make the decision. There are sliding priorities that are not predictable, so careful planning allows us to accommodate those sliding priorities. Otherwise, we are so driven by the urgent that was left until the last minute, we compromise both the new priority and that which was left undone. This creates stress.


2. Emotion: Managing stress is so critical for leaders. Moving from principle #1 above to this one shows how connected our work is. When one element is out of balance, the entire body of work is influenced…usually in a negative way. Managing self is the principal leadership mandate. Managing self means managing anxiety. There are various ways to manage anxiety, so learn and apply the method that works for you. If the leader is anxious, then the team is anxious. Being anxious puts our thinking into feeling. Making emotional decisions typically blocks rational thinking. Have a process for making decisions that points to rational thinking by you and your team.


3. Process: Having perspective and being balanced emotionally means that you can follow the process you have created for growing the enterprise you lead. Thinking in systems means establishing a process for yourself and your team. Here are my process steps:


o Create and Utilize Guiding Principles: We define core values and feel good about them, and then they are simply a memory. Take those values and create guiding principles for yourself and the organization you lead. Use them for every decision.


o Define Group Process: Define the level of decision making for each team member. Learn to delegate and create follow-up methods for accountability. Don’t delegate and forget until the deadline. Set up check-in points for mentoring and course correcting.


o Ask for Team Input for Decisions: You will discover that you might have missed some detail that will create a problem. You might find that someone has a useful suggestion that you had not considered. Getting input does not mean that the leader must do what others say. It’s a way for getting buy-in and clarity. Set boundaries for what you will and will not accept. Make decisions based on principles rather than wanting people to like you. It’s better to be respected than liked.


o Be Flexible: Sometimes we choose a pathway that doesn’t work, even with all the work to be sure that it’s the best choice. Stop when it’s evident that the decision is not good and address it with your team. Being transparent is a good leadership trait. Being human is better than being perfect.


Define a process and continually work on self. Leadership and communication are both based on relationship.


* Seth Godin's blog post, The Difference Between Mass and Banality


** From “Vincentian Discernment and Decision making