What is Decision Leadership?
A Book Review of Decision Leadership: Empowering Others to Make Better Choices by Don A. Moore and Max. H. Bazerman
Review by Mark Herbert
Decision leadership seeks to help leaders grow in decision-making ability and equip them to help others do the same. The book explores decision-making thought and practice, arguing for its centrality in effective leadership. This is done by providing many interesting stories and anecdotes and challenging the reader to be more curious and rigorous in their approach to decision-making. The opening context-setting chapters and the vision set out in the closing chapter are the book’s strengths. Equally valuable is the appendix that provides an overview of many of the most common decision biases.
Like all books, the posture the reader brings to their reading and the context when a book is read play a huge role in a book’s efficacy. From a personal point of view, Decision Leadership was both a timely and helpful read. The short and simple chapters should not be mistaken for being simplistic and despite being written for an American audience, the principles embedded into each story translate well and resonate.
3 key insights
Having read the book and discussed parts of it at length with others as part of our book club, below I provide 3 key insights which I continue to reflect on. I hope they prove helpful to you.
Insight #1: Leaders not only need to make great decisions themselves but also help shape a decision-making architecture around them by equipping others to make consistently great decisions.
The author’s ultimate vision is the design and implementation of what they term “decision factories”, by which they are referring to organisations that consistently produce quality decisions and quality decision-makers. I personally question the use of “factory” language as this can imply that where we get all the inputs right, this will automatically guarantee the right outputs. (A decision-making “ecosystem” or “environment” or “way of working” might be valuable alternatives). Decision-making is often more dynamic than “factory” implies, and the role of chance can mean that great decision-making inputs do not always result in great decisions being made. (It is equally true that sometimes poor decision-making inputs lead to great decisions … something that can blind the decision-maker to the substantial role chance can play).
“Your ability to facilitate good decisions of those around you amplifies your leverage to improve your organisation’s effectiveness.” (p182).
Language aside, the vision for creating optimal decision-making ecosystems certainly resonates as it moves from thinking about isolated decisions (where the tendency can be to only focus on the actual decision and ignore much of the process), towards thinking more about how decisions are made – then learning from this and replicating where possible.
Leaders would benefit from creating more time to think, to spend more time thinking about how they think, and then reflecting on how this thinking shapes the way they and others approach decision-making.
💡 Top Tip from the book: recognise and reward good decision-making processes, rather than just good decision outcomes. This will help to positively shape the decision-making ecosystem.
Insight #2: Leaders need to learn to relativise the place of intuition in the decision-making process
Chapter 2 introduces a discussion on Guts vs. Brains. The short chapter only scratches the surface of an area I am seeking to explore more deeply (suggested further reading is welcomed!), yet a key reminder was pointing out that our intuition carries with it a number of potentially overlooked flaws. In particular, I was helped by the author’s thinking around decision-framing rarely being neutral.
“Context frames our preferences in important ways. Frames drive our choices in ways that rational theory would not predict.” (p206)
By implication, this suggests that intuition is often irrational. I was left reflecting on how much I can be tempted to believe in the objectivity of my intuition, allowing myself to become blinded by bias. The authors suggest that intuition is more about familiarity than mastery, and therefore whilst remaining a valuable asset in the decision-making process, intuition ought not to be the primary driver. For a naturally intuitive decision-maker, this was hard but helpful to hear.
💡 Top tip from the book: give a decision multiple frames and consider the outcome for each.
Insight #3: true collaboration is complex, yet powerful.
This insight was drawn from a number of points in the book, particularly from the discussion centred on the wisdom of crowds. Before reading the book, I was already persuaded by the need for and benefit of seeking the views of others - this is a subject I coach and train others on regularly. Yet, the book did get me thinking more about the type of diversity I seek out.
There is clearly wisdom in crowds, as long as the crowd is not homogenous. This suggests that it is not just enough to listen to and consider other people’s views. These views need to reflect a cross-section of decision-making perspectives and approaches, or else we end up surrounding ourselves with a crowd which operates like an echo chamber, confirming our biases.
(As an aside, this is the great flaw in the concept of “Groupthink”, developed by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. Groupthink occurs when a decision-making unit reaches a consensus without critical thinking or conflict. Groupthink can give the illusion of unity but masks the stifling of creativity. Groupthink is the path of least resistance, whereas it is only degrees of resistance and creative tension that cause sparks to ignite).
In the final chapter of the book, the authors provide the following summary
“Rather than thinking that as a leader you need to have all the answers, you can use the wisdom around you by structuring decisions to allow for diverse inputs and encouraging constructive debate. Sometimes it may require you to promote respectful disagreement.” (p186)
💡 Top tip from the book: ensure you are intentionally surrounding yourself with people who don’t agree with you - what gift of insight can they give to you?
My best next step
Having read and reflected on the book, my next best step will be to think more carefully about how I frame a decision and actively seek out alternative perspectives - this will help me ensure I am not missing something that could make a good decision I might make, a far better one.
Mark Herbert, August 2023