Have you ever found yourself looking at a restaurant’s menu, struggling to decide what you will order, and then asking your dining companion “What are you having?” in the vain hope that knowing what they are going to order because of their unique palette and taste will some how help you decide? Human beings are funny like that.
We have so many ways of selecting a course of action for the future, without being clear on what we want.
I once had a friend who, after having gotten angry at someone, would respond with a contrite “He made me shout at him”, by way of explaining his actions. I recall a few years ago reading about two football fans who were charged with assault for throwing pound coins at the manager of one of Scotland’s leading football teams. In court, when asked why they had done that, they replied that they had been provoked by him when he celebrated his team’s scoring of a goal at an away match in their stadium. The presiding judge took this into account when sentencing the gentlemen. The court may have been strong on mercy, but weak on personal responsibility and accountability.
Jerry Colonna makes the case that what every human being wants is to feel love, safety and belonging.
Our need for connection, protection, and control is our attempt to secure these. What becomes problematic for us as leaders is that we start to act on automatic pilot when we imagine a situation might jeopardise our sense of feeling loved, safe, or like we belong. We may behave in a reactive manner, driven by external threats, real or imagined, and before we know it, it is someone else’s fault that we have acted as we did. Carl Jung famously said
Until you make the unconscious conscious,
it will direct your life,
and you will call it fate.
The inner work of a leader starts with making the invisible visible so as to start down the road of taking responsibility for their world.
But how should we select our course of action?
We learn how to decide and how to make “good” decisions. When we make a decision, we weigh up the pros and cons of doing one thing or another, of acting or not acting. What actually tends to happen is that we outsource the decision to the facts: we let the facts decide. This sounds delightfully objective, and may make sense if you are assessing where the best return on investment may come from, or what the prudent course of action might be in a scenario.
But it also disempowers the decision maker because the decision is being outsourced to the “objective” facts, which as any sensible economist will tell you, is actually subjective as all get out. Why? Because we have biases. We see what we want to see. We tend to include data which support our unconscious biases and reject data which contradict them.
We justify decisions and use the “facts” to cover our butts.
Fundamentally decisions are about determinism – the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will. The manager may be held accountable for the decision, but ultimately the facts are responsible. This kind of thinking does not live up to the level of responsibility organisations need to thrive in 2020.
Because in 2020 we are facing a perfect storm of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
Put simply, in 2020, the facts don’t have a clue.
In 2020, leaders are needed: not to make decisions, although decisions will have to be made, but to make choices. Choices rest on freedom and self-permission: the ability to choose different courses of action from different alternatives, without restraint.
Choices are guided by values, by purpose, and by intention.
Decisions are guided by external constructs, like right and wrong, consequences and justification. And that difference matters.
In a workshop I once attended, the front of room leader asked a participant: “What kind of ice cream do you want: chocolate or vanilla?” Chocolate they responded. “Why?” they were asked. Because I like chocolate. Wrong. Because it is healthier? Nope. Because chocolate is colder? Nada. It went on and on, until the participant eventually said “You know, I don’t want chocolate any more, I want Vanilla”, “Why?” “Because I want it.”, at which point the leader smiled and said “Yes. You don’t need a reason to want the ice cream. You get to want it and choose it.”
Leaders are called to choose: called to look to their purpose, principles, and values, to make choices which serve their intention.
Leaders are not always going to get it right. They don’t always create what they intended, but leading beats living on automatic pilot and merely reacting to the world around us. It beats making decisions based on external criteria and playing not to lose. Our organisations and communities need more leaders.