thinking, decision making and leadership


“A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try and get there.”

David Gergen


I get in lots (lots) of discussions/debates about what leadership is, and isn’t, and who are leaders, and who isn’t. Most often I find myself in some fairly simplistic discussions in that everyone is trying to distill the entire topic into some soundbite. The truth is leadership is complex and leaders are rarely, in totality, great leaders in every context.

Let me try some foundational thoughts:

  • I believe anyone, and everyone, can lead
  • Leadership is contextual or situational (generally speaking) in that 98.129863% of leadership is within the moment rather than on some grand level
  • Common Sensemaking, the ability to have everyone in an organization to make sense of a situation with some common understanding, guarantees everyone can effectively think (and it also has some efficiency attributes)
  • Common sensemaking increases the potentiality of leadership in everyone
  • Common sensemaking increases the potentiality of decision-making from everyone
  • Decision-making is distinctly different than thinking and sensemaking
  • Not everyone is as comfortable making decisions as they are in making sense of things and thinking about things
  • Decision-making is where ‘leadership’ in the most common definition occurs
  • Not all decisions are created equal and not all people are comfortable making decisions inequal in impact
  • Decision impact is rarely understood and always overestimated
  • The best leadership properly applies sensemaking, properly is receptive to collaborative thinking, properly estimates decision impacts, properly articulates decision impacts (so organization properly applies mental and physical energy) and properly applies resources to decisions

Which leads me to structurally just making everyone a better potential leader.

Common sensemaking is the core. Some people may suggest it is the ability to frame consistently from person to person. I have had several experiences with this, but let me highlight J Walter Thompson where everyone was trained in the “Thompson Way”. It was a construct for thinking about communications and strategy and behavioral dynamics. Everyone was trained. In every department and at every level. What it meant was that anyone, at any time, could frame up a discussion and everyone would ‘make sense’ of it in a similar way. Everything was framed in a way that everyone could participate in the discussion. I imagine my point is that we should be searching for common ground from which to assess a situation, make decisions and lead. That common ground means in any given context, any given person could possibly lead from that situation towards progress. Just ponder.

Which leads me to everyone likes to think (but not necessarily make decisions).

To be clear, thinking and making a decision are distinctly different things. That said. It’s a given that people are more motivated if they are involved in the thinking about that ‘thing’. We like to do things more if we choose to do them (rather than be told or coerced). Far too often business ‘leaders’ think thinking is inefficient and most people don’t like to think. Neither are true. Thinking in terms of the situation, and possible progress paths, is like festina lente: slow down now to speed up later. I, personally, think people like to think, like to ‘feel smart’ and treating people as if their thinking isn’t valued actually diminished value creation organizationally. Just ponder.

Which leads me to the decisions and decision making.

Effective doing from decisions is dependent upon common sensemaking from which that decision is made. But while I believe everyone likes to think, I do not believe everyone likes to make decisions (the difference between ownership of the idea and ownership of the accountability). And maybe this is where a type of leadership occurs; decision-making responsibility. Someone who makes the call and accepts the accountability. It is calming to everyone else. It doesn’t mean shirking responsibility just that they feel better not assuming the responsibility. And that’s okay.

Next. Being decisive isn’t about making the perfect decision every time. That isn’t possible. Rather, it’s about being confident that the right things have been considered and the right context is assessed. This is important because many good situational decisions are disastrous somewhere in the distant future and some semi-bad situational decisions actually have happy outcomes. That last sentence summarizes the unpredictability of decision making, yet, suggests the possibilities found in outcome surprises. I could suggest this is why leaders thrown into a situation, rather than a situation thrown out to potential leaders, tend to fall into the biggest trap decision makers fall into – the overwhelming desire for a definitive answer leading to very bad decisions and outcomes. But answers need to be agreed upon and decisions need to be acted upon. Some people are better at this than others. I actually don’t know if they are leaders or just people who can own decision making and I am not sure it matters.

Just ponder.

Which leads me to declustering.

Leaders like to cluster decisions and business like to cluster things. All are typically done because everyone believes it is more efficient and, possibly, more effective. Clustering is the unspoken organizational corrosive barnacle on the progress ship. It is true business, and people, arc toward replication. If a leader spots a ‘decisionmaker’ inevitably they will guide more decisions to that person simply. Decisions then cluster thereby making the overall – most people – desire to be involved in decisions to decluster. Yeah. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. By default, you’ve once again parsed out responsibility, not collaborative sensemaking, and created a different type of hierarchy. I am not suggesting some people aren’t better at making decisions than others. What I am suggesting is leaders’ natural instinct is NOT to spread sensemaking and thinking, but isolate so when convinced to distribute and spread, no matter how effective overall it may be, inevitably they will redistribute to a few – that’s the arc. Just ponder.

In the end.

In general, I think we talk about leaders, and leadership, in some wacky ways. There are millions of articles about what ‘great leaders are’ and about ‘great leaders’ as if they are anomalies or some special breed of humans. They aren’t. I am sure there are some exceptional leaders, but I am equally sure there are even more exceptional leaders buried under the bullshit world of words & expectations if we would let them emerge. The truth is everyone can lead and some people are better at decision making which is just a version of leadership. I will not argue that some people seem to energize others around them and maybe that could be called leadership, but I would also argue simply offering that particular feature/characteristic doesn’t mean everything should cluster around that person. I tend to always go back to one thing – the law of the situation. The situation demands the leader. In fact, the situation chooses the leader, a leader cannot choose a situation. Just ponder before you invest a lot of energy deciding who is a leader and who isn’t.


“Only through participation by the many in the responsibilities and determinations of business can Americans secure the moral and intellectual development which is essential to the maintenance of liberty.”

Louis Brandeis

Written by Bruce