The Most Important Leadership Decision

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Peter Drucker, the Father of Modern Management, said that the first and most important leadership decision to be made is the decision to become a leader. Like most of Drucker’s advice, his statement sounds deceptively simple. The truth is that this is profoundly true and important. For someone who has never been a leader previously, this is frequently not an easy decision to make. Many who have never had the responsibility and authority of leadership fear the acceptance of both. They fear something going wrong, they fear being blamed for actions not fully under their control, they fear that followers will not follow. The would-be leader is afraid of the embarrassment and penalties of failure. As an executive, it is your job to help non-leaders make this leadership decision.

No One is Born to Leadership

All start equally as would-be leaders and face these fears of the responsibility, authority and the unknown of leadership—and this is true regardless of age. Mary Kay Ash built the billion dollar Mary Kay Cosmetics Corporation with only $5,000. When she was only three years old her father was invalided with tuberculosis and couldn’t take care of himself. Her mother went to work to support the family, so Mary Kay took on a leadership role and accepted the responsibilities for cleaning, cooking and caring for her father. She accepted the responsibility; she had the authority for domestic decisions and ran the household during the day. She made Drucker’s leadership decision before she even knew what leadership was. The lessons she learned helped her to reach her full potential as a leader.

Adults Make Drucker’s Leadership Decision with the Help of Others

Alvin C. York was raised in the backwoods of Tennessee, and he became an expert rifleman. Until he met his future wife and became religious, he was a heavy drinker and trouble maker. No one noticed anything particularly unusual about him when he was drafted into the Army for service during World War I. That is, until he filed to avoid military service as a conscientious objector. His company commander convinced him that his country needed him and to remain in the army. York withdrew his request to avoid service and went overseas to France with his unit. Moreover, he encouraged him to help his fellow soldiers. York made the leadership decision, and he was promoted to the rank of corporal.

By October 1918, York was sent on a patrol in the Argonne Forest with 16 other men under the command of a sergeant. The patrol managed to surprise a German headquarters and took several prisoners. As the patrol moved on, they stumbled on a hidden nest of enemy machine-guns, which opened fire with deadly effectiveness. Only York and seven privates survived the first volley to face an entire machine-gun battalion consisting of several hundred enemy soldiers. York had almost no leadership training. He was a young corporal with seven others in a very perilous situation.

Those with York talked about surrender, but they agreed to follow his plan. By the end of the day, and with only seven fellow Americans, York and his patrol captured another 132 prisoners, including three officers.

The Supreme Allied Commander, the French Marshall Ferdinand Foch, had been at war for four years. He was aware of the daily actions of millions of men in battle. He saw hundreds of situations where courageous leaders performed heroic deeds under fire. Yet, Foch called York’s feat the greatest individual action of the war. General Pershing, the overall American commander, immediately promoted York to Sergeant and recommended him for the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is America’s highest decoration for valor, and Sergeant York received it shortly thereafter.

After the war, York returned to Tennessee. He married his girlfriend and became a farmer. He turned down all offers to use his name for profit saying, "This uniform isn’t for sale." However, he did allow a movie of his life to be made, and he used the proceeds to establish schools for poor mountain children. The movie, Sergeant York, won a Best Actor Oscar for Gary Cooper, and it was nominated in nine other categories, including Best Picture. During World War II York, as a colonel, commanded a regiment of the Tennessee National Guard.

A Boy’s Story of Making the Leadership Decision

Some years ago a 13-year-old boy had joined the Boy Scouts. He had always been an introvert and very shy. Moreover, an early childhood disease had left him thin and weak. He had never been a leader. His scout troop announced a contest to see who could master the most scouting skills during a six month period. The boy applied himself and won the contest. Then the boy’s father was transferred to Texas.

In this new town, the one troop where it seemed most likely he'd fit in hadn’t been doing very well. However, the troop had a new Scoutmaster, who had plans to rebuild the troop. This Scout troop had two patrols with about a dozen members in each, but one had recently lost its patrol leader. The Scoutmaster told this boy that he wanted him to be patrol leader because of the scouting skills he had mastered. The boy had all the normal fears, and he declined the leadership position. Only when the Scoutmaster promised to help him if he ran into problems did he accept and make the leadership decision that Drucker said was the most important.

The boy worked hard and found that he liked being a leader. Moreover, in every competition between the two patrols, his patrol was judged best. In a statewide competition, with many patrols, his patrol again won awards. A year later the Scoutmaster appointed him Senior Patrol Leader, responsible for both patrols. I know about this boy intimately, because I am he. While I refined my leadership skills considerably later in high school, at West Point, in the Air Force and in the civilian organizations that I led, without that Scoutmaster’s help in persuading me to make "Drucker’s leadership decision," my life would have taken an entirely different course.

Help a Potential Leader Make a Leadership Decision

If you have a subordinate who hasn’t yet made this most important of leadership decisions, you can help him or her to do so by:

  • Building self-confidence by assigning small, short-term leadership tasks
  • Providing assistance and mentorship as the new leader develops, typically by making mistakes
  • Giving encouragement and inspiration

With your help and support, you can motivate someone to make Drucker’s leadership decision.