How to make decisions like a U.S. general

Decisiveness is a key quality in a good leader. But effective leadership requires more than that.

How to make decisions like a U.S. general
General Charles Jacoby [Photo: DoD Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released/Wikimedia Commons]

One of the most important jobs of a leader is to make decisions. While this sounds straightforward, our brains aren’t always willing to cooperate, say Leo Tilman and General Charles Jacoby, authors of Agility: How to Navigate the Unknown and Seize Opportunity in a World of Disruption.


“We know from behavioral science, that human beings are naturally reluctant to make decisions because of the fear that the downside of change is going to outweigh the upside,” says Tilman. “There are deep evolutionary forces in play, and leaders and organizations must devote a concerted effort to overcoming them—and doing so consistently.”

Decisiveness is the ability to make timely and gradual decisions when challenges or opportunities arise. It requires taking deliberate action. “A leader’s first responsibility is to make decisions,” says Jacoby. “It’s the most important task for a leader. The most difficult series of decisions to make are the ones where there is an opportunity or a threat that’s been detected that requires a deliberate action on the part of the leader and the organization.”

Decisiveness is a key part of being an agile leader.

“We define ‘agility’ as the organizational capacity to detect, assess, and respond to environmental changes in purposeful and decisive ways,” says Tilman. “After you’ve detected an environmental signal, which may signify a threat or an opportunity, and you rigorously assess what it means, you need an ability to shape a course of action and decisively respond. Sometimes these are hard decisions that require courage; often they need to be based on incomplete information.”

The U.S. military uses a phrase called “bias for action.” “Instead of defining decisiveness as the bias for action, which could mean that knee-jerk reactions are better than deliberate inaction, we define it as the bias for deliberate action in response to something unexpected,” says Tilman. “This way of reacting to change follows a specific process, which involves deeply studying and having an evidence-based debate on what you’re observing and what the solutions are. That turns a bias for action into something very disciplined, informed, and deliberate.”

For an organization to be agile, it needs to be agile both strategically and tactically. And to be decisive, it needs to be decisive both strategically and tactically. Being decisive and taking action requires a specific set of organizational capabilities and culture, the authors say.


Get buy-in

One thing that impedes decisiveness is not having buy-in from the organization, says Jacoby. “It’s not enough for just the senior leader to be decisive; you want an organization to move in a certain direction when a decision is made,” says Jacoby. “This requires a culture of trust and confidence in the leaders up and down the command chain and out to the edges of the organization.”

Buy-in lends itself to a greater ability for being decisive by having an organization that’s able to successfully implement the decisions.

“You could have an organization where leaders are incredibly decisive. When they see a threat or an opportunity, they grab the initiative and take the lead,” says Tilman. “However, the rest of the organization may not be decisive at all, because team members don’t fully understand the organization’s overarching mission and strategy and how their responsibilities and roles fit into that bigger picture. Worse yet, they may not trust their leaders or may not feel empowered to take risks.”

Connect to purpose

“It’s not enough to just be a general up there rapidly barking orders in the middle of crisis,” says Jacoby. “He or she may in fact be very decisive, but unless it’s connected to the values, the purpose, the mission of the organization and unless the organization is empowered in a way that allows them to move the organization in the direction that leader is calling for, then you’re not going to really achieve agility, and you’ll end up mistaking a lot of activity for results.”

Empower your team

Being decisive requires taking the position of the leader by establishing the values of the organization and the clarity of direction. It also requires that you empower the entire organization to be decisive in their own realm.

“There are two distinct priorities for senior leaders who want to cultivate decisiveness in their organization,” says Tilman. “One is to cultivate the next generation of leaders who are capable of being decisive. The second is to create the organizational culture and knowledge that will enable the rest of the organization to be decisive. The breakdowns and disconnect we see here is when one or both of these are not attended to.”


Putting too much of the decision-making on the senior leader can interfere with his or her focus.

“There’s a problem with slowness that’s inherent in an organization that has to move everything up some kind of hierarchical structure,” says Jacoby. “That’s where this idea of connecting the strategic to the tactical is about empowering throughout the organization so that junior leaders feel confident to make a certain set of decisions and senior leaders can focus on the larger picture. Everyone is operating within their full understanding on the shared goals and the correct realm of responsibilities.”

Counteract uncertainty

One thing that impedes decision-making is uncertainty, but you really can’t get away from it, says Jacoby.

“When you put a finer point on what freezes leaders up the most—what makes their feet stick in the mud—is something to do with uncertainty,” says Jacoby. “To fight this problem of uncertainty, you need to fight for intelligence. That requires trust and competence throughout the organizations to make sure the leadership teams at all levels understand what the organization is seeing so they can make proper assessments, rapid, timely, deliberate-based decisions.”

Having a culture where people are not afraid to voice dissent and disagree with their leaders and argue based on evidence, rather than politics or acceptance, will create a setting that addresses uncertainty.

“You create a setting where you intensely debate signals and solutions to get to the truth,” says Tilman. “We describe such an organizational environment as the ‘forum of truth.’ You want a process where people feel that they used all information at hand to get to the bottom of things. That gives them confidence to make hard decisions.”


One part is the personalities of people and their ability to make hard decisions and take risks, and the other part is in creating an environment that allows everyone to feel confident that they’ve done their homework, planned, prepared, and analyzed every angle. “When we do make a decision, it’s based on exactly the right information, and it’s the best decision we can make under the circumstances,” says Tilman.