Decisive vs. Inclusive Leadership

I had two situations recently in which my goal was to lead a group of people to arrive at and act on a particular conclusion. Even though I achieved my goal in both situations, I acted with almost opposite strategies to do so. In one case I acted decisively, telling the group what to do, and in the other situation I held back and only tried to act like one member of the group.

In both cases it was messy, and I came under some criticism for how I acted, but I am not sure what I would have done differently.

The specifics of the two situations were different, but they were structurally similar:

  • Time pressure. In each case, the decision needed to be made and acted on within 24 hours, hopefully less.

  • Decision pressure. The results of the decision would have wide-ranging effects, beyond the scope of those making the decision. Many eyes were on the outcome.

  • Size of group. There was a group of 8-12 people that needed to come to the conclusion. Small enough to come to a conclusion; large enough to have a bunch of different opinions.

  • Dual goals. I mentioned that in each case I had the goal of provoking a specific, short-term action. In both cases, I also had a secondary, but still very important goal to empower and build up the group.

  • Both policy and tactical decisions. Both situations came out of a specific situation that was representative of a more general case. Both the long-term policy as well as the short-term course of action needed to be decided and reconciled.

So what was different between the two situations?

In the first situation, there was a fair amount of internal dissent as to the proper course of action. I frequently hang back from discussion and then weigh in a little more sparingly. When I did speak up, though, I stated what should be done and directly asked the others to help me implement it. A little surprisingly, everyone quickly agreed that this was the right way forward (despite substantial disagreement right before) and were happy with the outcome.

In the second situation, the immediate action was less controversial, but there was more debate about the proper long-term policy. In this situation I simply tried to express my opinion as one of the group, and try to keep the group focused on the immediate need for action. In the end, the desired action and policy were taken as a consensus decision.

In both cases I received criticism for the amount of back-and-forth needed to make the "simple" decision for action. The criticism, though, caused me to reflect on the two situations - how they were similar, and how they were different. I was acting on instinct and gut in both of these, so why did I act the way that I did?

I came to a couple conclusions:

  • The criticism was fair. In both cases it would have been easiest to simply make the decision and go forward. There was too much back-and-forth on too many irrelevant details. In the midst of the discussions, I was frustrated with the slowness of the process as well.

  • I had an implicit dual mandate that affected my actions. After thinking, I wasn't necessarily displeased. I think this is because I realized that I wasn't optimizing for just the one immediate outcome. I was also trying to build up and empower the group.

  • The difference of opinion on the immediate action was key. The first situation had more agreement as to policy and less as to what action was immediately needed. The second situation was reversed. Combined with the time pressure, it was probably this key difference that led to the difference in my own actions.

In the first situation, there was no consensus on what to do next, so a decision was needed to break the logjam. There was no natural leader for this action, so the artificial organizational leadership needed to be substituted and used.

In the second situation, I had more implicit confidence in the immediate outcome, so it was easier to hang back and let others have a chance to lead.

Even after reflection, though, I am not sure that what I did was best. Would it have been better to be more decisive, earlier? I really don't know.

In the first situation, it could be that it would have hastened the correct action - but it could also be that the group dynamics required the buildup of tension to allow decisive action to resolve it. Coming in earlier, even with the exact same words and the exact same actions, may not have been accepted as legitimate because the underlying fault lines had not been exposed.

In the second situation, I am not sure that a more decisive tone would have accomplished the secondary objective of empowering the group. Perhaps it would have been better, though, to explicitly separate the long-term policy discussion and the short-term action discussion into two separate timeframes so as to focus each discussion more effectively.