Sometimes when you meet someone, you just click. Last year, while teaching for the Executive Nonprofit Management certificate program at Duke University, I met Amy Gearhart, a student in my class. She had recently made a career shift. After serving 30 years as a United Methodist clergywomen, she had taken on a new role as a professional coach, helping nonprofit professionals reach the next level. Over lunch, we had a delightful conversation about the value of coaching principles, and I easily related to how important these principles were to me as a social sector consultant, teacher and writer. Although technically my student, Amy was my teacher during that lunch. Amy recently launched her own blog and wrote a great piece on decision-making that I wanted to share. While we have written many blogs (e.g. Nonprofit Dashboards, Fail Early, Fail Cheaply and Scenario Planning) about the technical side of decision-making, the truth is that decisions are very personal and often influenced by emotions and timing. She tackles this head-on and – I think you’ll agree – gives you food for thought before you make your next big decision. How do leaders make smart decisions? Careful, reflective self-awareness in decision-making is a sound investment for any organization and its leaders. This investment requires a great deal of attention and reflection by team participants and leaders. Leadership researchers and authors talk about sound decision-making depending on our own attention to psychological traps, cognitive biases, and the lessons and learnings from “fabulous” failures. All of this work takes time and requires leaders to be self-aware and cultivate permissive learning environments in the workplace. As I reflect on my own leadership, I’ll explore the conditions under which I am best and worst prepared to make smart decisions. I invite you to examine and compare these conditions to those which best prepare you to make smart decisions. First, I am most self-aware for decisions and cultivate permissive learning environments for the teams I lead when I am grounded in good rest, self-care, relational health and spiritual centering. I am clear about my role in the larger organization and have a strong grasp of its mission and vision. I feel supported in risk-taking and courageous leadership by my superiors. In these special and even rare times, I have found that I am usually working with a coach or strong mentor. This is why I became a certified professional coach for others. Having a trained and certified professional coach who encourages and facilitates our professional growth makes a world of difference in our ability to make smart and reflective decisions. On the other hand, the conditions under which I am least prepared to make smart decisions is when I am unclear about my role in the organization or uncertain about its mission. This can lead me into many decision-making traps. When I am unclear about the vision of the organization or my role in it, I can fall into the trap of neglecting to understand the decision in the wider context. Then, I move into the overconfidence trap, believing that I know enough about the context of the organization and the accuracy of the decision. At that point, my awareness is limited, and I am in no position to make a good decision. I have also found that I am less prepared to make good decisions when I’m tired or neglecting my personal and relational health. This typically occurs when I’m too busy and rushed in decision-making. Frequently, out of the urgency to make a hasty decision, I’ll practice what some researchers describe as “anchoring,” accepting or relying too heavily on one piece of information in making my decision. Too often, that bit of information – the cheapest data – becomes the loudest voice. But, it is often the presenting “symptom” rather than the root issue. As an alternative, I look to mentors who practice non-anxious leadership and healthy self-differentiation, carefully discerning between rational thought and feelings, to make decisions for their organizations. My lifetime of leadership is built on aspirations and intentional steps forward to become more like these mentors. As a leader, I am constantly increasing my awareness of how I think. I’ve learned the context under which I think has such a profound impact on the ways decisions are made in the organizations I lead. It is critical to cultivate rich soil for increasing my awareness through self-care, reflection, groundedness and self-differentiation. Here are some questions for your decision-making reflection:

  • What are the conditions under which you are best prepared to make good decisions? How are you creating those conditions for those whom you lead?
  • What are the conditions under which you are least prepared to make good decisions? What resources do you mobilize to mitigate those conditions?
  • Who models good decision-making in your organization? How can you learn from them?
  • Name two or three concrete actions that you can take to move toward better decision-making. Who will help hold you accountable for those actions?

I agree with Amy’s thesis underscoring the importance of organizations having a clear vision and good strategic plan to guide decision-making and a culture that practices self-care. Additionally, I learned from Amy that good decision-making isn’t just about the method used to come to the decision, but also the how and when that prepares us to make the best decisions. I welcome your reflections on decision-making and look forward to learning about the actions you take within your organization to reinforce good decision-making.​

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