Limit the Decisions You Make as a Leader

3/6/13Follow @DecisionBook

My hardest job as a CEO: Not making decisions.

Yes, you read that right. My goal as an executive is to make only one significant decision a year.

But isn’t that what a leader is supposed to do? Take the heat, call the shots, and have the final say?

That’s the conventional wisdom on leadership. But it’s also the main reason that only 54 percent of workers are satisfied with their boss or immediate supervisor, according to a recent Gallup poll. Most people don’t get to make meaningful decisions at work, so they are not fully engaged.

I had my own early encounter with the dangers of top-down decision making. On a visit to a power plant during the early days of AES, a machine operator told me that he had been overseeing his equipment when it began to exhibit slight vibrations.

He knew something was wrong. Unfortunately, at the time, he was required to get clearance from his supervisor before shutting the equipment down. He simple didn’t have the authority to stop the production process on his own, even though he had the expertise to evaluate the situation. He spent nearly 20 minutes trying to locate his supervisor. By the time they returned, the machine had overheated and was severely damaged; a piece of equipment with a value of nearly $30 million. I knew then that the operators on the floor needed to be empowered to make those key in-the-moment decisions.

My message to aspiring leaders: You don’t have all the answers. You are fallible and are often out of touch with the day-to-day realities of your company.

Being a true leader at work has less to do with knowing everything and more about knowing who to trust or where to go to get results.

Before you make your next key decision at work, ask yourself: Are you closest to the issue? Do you have experience making similar decisions? Do you know the right decision to make? Not sure? Good.

Here’s what to do next:

Get advice. Seek out input from people below you and above you, inside and outside of the organization. Get comfortable asking for information, looking at a problem from all sides, and getting input from your peers or superiors.

Delegate. The higher you climb in your career, the more important your ability to recognize your own strengths—and weaknesses—and the strengths in those around you. Use that knowledge to delegate and empower others. I don’t mean just the grunt work, handing off things you don’t want to do. Rather, partner with people to help you resolve a situation faster, better, and in a new way. When decisions involve more people who are fully engaged, your team has a higher chance of a good outcome.

Be Brave. It takes courage to surrender authority. It’s not always easy to give up the rush of being in charge. Whether you are the CEO, the shift manager, or managing a project for the first time, you’ll create a strong, nimble organization of engaged, empowered people.

It’s the age-old adage: a rising tide lifts all boats. Good leaders know this. Start now.

Dennis Bakke is the co-founder of Imagine Schools. He previously co-founded and served as the president and CEO of AES, a Fortune 200 global power company. He is the author of The Decision Maker: Unlock the Potential of Everyone in Your Organization, One Decision at a Time. Follow @DecisionBook

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  • Suleman

    Very few successful people know how to delegate, and so they don’t make best use of the human resources around them. Also increasingly competitive work environments are making it harder to do so. If one is hell-bent on taking credit for everything then one is less likely to cooperate with others or delegate decision-making.