Leadership is made up of two core qualities: making decisions and executing them. But what do these really mean? They can seem nebulous. People can get caught up in the how. Is there a best way to make a decision, or to execute it? Thoughts like these can paralyze would-be leaders.
One way to help cut through that vagueness is to look at what the words originally meant. The verb decide in Latin is two parts: de and cadere. Cadere means “to cut”, and is often turned into the root “cide” in English. Homicide, suicide, and even the word scissors are transformations of this root. The prefix de means “off”. Thus, to make a decision is not so much making a single choice as the act of cutting off all other options.
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, a point of no return in the Roman Civil War, he was making a decision. There was no turning back. We still use the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” to mean a point of no return. Every leader in any field comes to points where once a decision is made there is no turning back.
Making decisions requires us to get rid of the other options. We can’t go back and think of what might have been. Leaders don’t have that luxury. They have to decide based on the information they have what is best for their goals, which is why having great data is also important for a leader. The leader isn’t necessarily the one that has to do all of the research. But they do have to decide which information is needed, valid, and actionable.
Decisions are just half of the leadership equation. Executing those decisions is the other half. The word execute comes from ex and sequi. Ex means “out”. We call our exes that because they are now out of our lives. Sequi means “follow”. Put together, it means to follow through on something.
In the justice system, to execute someone means to follow through on the punishment to the ultimate end, death. In programming, a piece of code that runs through to completion on its own is called an executable. We call the highest business leaders in an organization executives because they are responsible for following through with the goals of the business.
Just one or the other isn’t enough to make a good leader. A great decider who can’t execute knows what to do but will fumble when they try to put it into action. Conversely, someone who can’t decide might be paralyzed with indecision or recklessly do the first thing that comes to mind.
I would go as far as to say that all of the other soft leadership qualities, like empathy, tact, inspiration, mentorship, and so forth, are assistants for the two core leadership qualities of making decisions and executing them. Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to British rule couldn’t just remain high ideals in his mind. He had to commit to the decision and follow through on it. But just one man couldn’t have overthrown the British Empire alone. He trained people under him and helped them to make the same decisions and follow through on them as he did. By convincing them to cut out violence from their possible choices, and then following through on Gandhi’s non-violent path, they were able to win.
While leadership requires the ability to decide and execute, leaders can only do this based on the quality of the information they have. The biggest benefit that the Internet has given leaders is the ability to gather so much information about how to optimize a business, both in raw data and in tools to transform the data into actionable data points. But now we’re drowning in data. Too much information can lead to poor decisions.
If you have a leadership role in your organization, keep this point in mind. Your decision-making prowess is fundamentally dependent on the quality of the information you have and the approaches you have to solve a problem. Quality beats quantity every time.
You also need to have a variety of execution strategies. Take a walk down a well-stocked hand tool aisle sometime and look at all the different kinds of tools. Each one was made because they have a specific use, and you can be sure that some carpenter sometime in history wasted a lot of effort trying to use a tool not fit for the job before asking the local smith for something better based on the feedback they got from their project failure.
The negative idiom in English is “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” You need to have the humility to look at the results of your decisions and their execution with clear eyes. Did they work well enough to meet your goals, or at all? If not, it is ultimately your responsibility, even if it wasn’t your fault, because you are the leader.
The best thing you can do after a bad decision or a flawed execution is to learn from it. It’s one more data point in your information tool set to help you make better decisions next time. Any insight that you can learn from these situations will hone your ability to decide on a plan and execute it.
If you want to be a strong leader, start viewing decisions like you were cutting off all other options and then executing your choice to the utmost. This is the fundamental quality of any leader. People who can do this are considered strong, decisive, and skilled at leadership.