Our research shows that humble leaders with the courage to be vulnerable create exceptionally decisive organizations. That is the fundamental insight from my seven years of decision research spanning dozens of experiments, hundreds of companies and thousands of business decisions.
Like Jim Collin’s Level 5 leaders, the most decisive leaders display “a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will.” In line with Brene Brown’s research, they are leaders who embrace vulnerability to “at best know the triumph of high achievement and...at worst, if they fail, at least fail while daring greatly.”
The Proof Is In Their Performance
These open-minded and decisive behaviors drive remarkable results, as shown by our research into decision checklists, decision logs, decision biases, inclusive decision-making and organizational decision practices. In summary, these leaders free up more of everyone’s time for productive work, and significantly increase team agility and innovation:
- Speed: They drive decisions twice as fast with half as many meetings, saving 10 hours of meeting time and 10 days of calendar time per decision.
- Innovation: They typically consider 3X more alternatives, increasing their chance of achieving desired results by at least sixfold and cutting their risk of failure in half.
- Inclusion: They include a wide range of diverse perspectives, identifying better choices 87% of the time.
- Results: They achieve expected results 90% of the time and exceed expectations 40% of the time, compared to typical goal achievement rates of 30%.
Altogether, these tactical advantages have strategic impact. Other research by Bain and Company has shown that decision-making effectiveness is 95% correlated with overall business performance, and the UK Institute for Employment Studies found that decision-making involvement drives half of all employee engagement.
The Three Keystone Behaviors
Humble leaders foster this organizational decisiveness through three keystone behaviors:
- They are open to different perspectives at the start of every decision journey. These leaders don’t begin by building a case or exerting their power to convince people of their analysis or gut instincts about what course to take. Instead, they focus their judgment and storytelling skills on defining and explaining the problem to be solved. Then they gather alternative courses of action from the people who will be impacted by the decision, purposefully including input from a more diverse range of people than usual.
- They also invite open feedback after making a decision. Humble leaders don’t use their power and influence to “sell the decision” and preemptively shut-down resistance. Instead, they ask, and expect, the broader group who is impacted by a decision to consider how much they buy-in to it, especially if they have concerns about the process that led to the decision. They know this active consideration improves understanding, and that it is better to hear concerns now than be derailed by them later.
- They set check-points to re-open or re-affirm decisions as conditions change. Such leaders don’t say, “It’s decided, so just do it!” and expect unwavering execution despite unexpected results or changing circumstances. Instead, they know that the world has a say in the outcome of their decisions, so to be agile, they must keep an open mind as results unfold. Without this effort, most organizations proceed with blinders on, sometimes sticking to obsolete decisions that need to change, and other times forgetting important decision details that are still relevant. The most effective leaders avoid these pitfalls. They humbly keep track of their decision-making with the same management discipline they apply to other critical business activities.
While these behaviors are relatively easy to understand, they are surprisingly hard to do.
The Three Big Blockers
This style of leadership is rare. In our research, only the top 15% of managers decide this way as a general practice, and only the top 2% fully commit to these behaviors.
I see three main reasons why these behaviors are so uncommon.
- Fear: As Brene Brown’s research makes clear, most people are afraid of the level of vulnerability and daring required to take this approach. Much like the first time down a ski slope, it takes bravery and conviction to lean down the mountain.
- Ego: Despite Jim Collin’s unassailable research revealing the strength of humility in Level 5 leaders, most of us still fall prey to management storytellers who elevate exciting but false heroic stories of ego-centric, charismatic leaders.
- Lack of Measurement: Unlike every other critical business activity, decision-making remains relatively unmeasured and unmanaged, lacking the transparency and visibility that applies to most other aspects of running a business. What gets measured gets managed, and what gets managed gets better. Because decision-making doesn’t get measured and managed systematically, it doesn’t improve much over time.
All three of these blockers must be addressed for broad organizational change to happen, but you don’t have to do them all at once. If you want to unblock decision-making as a leader, start your journey by addressing your fear and ego — especially fear. That’s not easy.
What You Can Do About It
In the course of my research and my journey as a leader, I have found a few first steps that may help. Even after several years of practice, I still have to make a conscious effort to adjust my leadership habits this way. When I remember to do them, they work every time.
- Start decision discussions by framing the problem without taking a position. This habit was particularly hard for me to change. I believed that decisive leaders use their judgment to make the right choice and their motivational skills to rally support. I felt like I was decisive when I started a meeting with, “We need to decide on doing X, and here’s why.” Instead, the most decisive leaders say, “Here’s the problem I see, and some of the choices we could make,” without taking a position themselves. They focus on explaining the problem to be solved and creating an environment where the best choice can emerge from the group.
- Give each decision contributor equal space to weigh in with their opinions first. I always have an opinion, and I get impatient in meetings, so I struggle with this. However, a level playing field is essential to unleashing the power of the group. One simple trick that works almost every time is to do a decision poll before meeting to discuss the decision. I use our Cloverpop decision polls in Slack to lay out the problem with a few alternatives (which also helps with #1 above), and then the decision contributors pick or prioritize their top choices, including brief written comments. Doing a poll upfront frames the discussion and is an antidote for meeting groupthink. It’s faster than “going around the table,” and makes it much easier to get equal input from remote team members and people with different personalities or language skills.
- Let the broader team state their level of buy-in when you announce decisions. This approach was completely counterintuitive to me at first — the whole point of communicating a decision is to explain the final call and move on, ASAP! But our research shows that is just my fear and ego talking...what if I’m wrong, what if we go too slow, why don’t people suck it up and get out of the way? Frankly, I can’t imagine communicating decisions that way anymore. It’s so easy to use basic survey tools to get quick input from dozens or even hundreds of people today — I use decision announcements in Slack for this. People understand decisions better and execute more effectively if you give them room to form and openly share their opinions about decisions that impact their work. If you and your decision contributors made a bad call, or there is dissent in the ranks, it’s better to know and act now than it is to find out later when results go awry.
A New Way
These steps are proven to work and will help start your journey. Most of all, they help bring a shift in perspective. In the old style, leaders use their judgment to decide and their skill to enact the decisions they make. In the new way, leaders follow practices that allow better choices and stronger commitments to emerge.
In short, mechanics aren’t what is holding you back. Your mindset is what matters. Everyone is afraid, and all our egos speak loudly. Leaders who embrace vulnerability are still afraid, and they mindfully accept and work through their fear. Humble leaders still have egos, and they set them aside to work in the service of their organizations rather than themselves.
Being a humble leader seems almost impossible at first. Yet people do it. Like riding a bike, skiing a mountain or surfing a wave, nearly everyone can learn how. Once you learn, the dangers recede. Then the fun begins — greater agility and innovation, more engagement, better outcomes and higher business performance.
This post was originally published in Forbes.