Overcoming Leadership Fears: Decision Making

Paul Rumsey

Leaders consistently need to make decisions that have significant organizational impact.  These occur in key arenas such as talent management, operations, budget and strategy.  Just because someone has a leadership title does not mean that person possesses the competence or confidence needed to make decisions that produce the results everyone expects.   Unfortunately, companies often promote excellent frontline employees into a manager role without proactively developing them with the necessary skills.  The result could be an incompetent or timid new leader.  Likewise, many entry-level leaders are handed the keys to a larger part of the business without development on making effective decisions at those higher levels with broader organizational impact.  This lack of preparation or lack of desire to follow best practices can create a serious leadership fear that forces the leader into inaction or forces the leader to use a “my-way-or-the-highway” mentality.  Neither option is good.  Instead, teams need confident leaders who make decisions based on solid principles instead of fear.  Beyond just going through leadership development experiences, leaders need to role model emotional intelligence based on values applied in a systematic approach.

Emotional Intelligence

Decision Making is one composite of EQi-2.0 (Emotional Intelligence), and leaders need to exhibit strong competencies in problem solving, reality testing and impulse control. 

  • Problem solving requires the leader to analyze an issue’s root cause or the purpose of a new decision in order to avoid spending unneeded time and energy on just surface items. Weak decision makers focus too much on non-important items and often delay addressing the more important or root items.  Earlier in my career, when I proposed training to address customer satisfaction issues, many said that we should retrain all frontline employees.  However, with further investigation, I discovered that the root issue was manager supervision and execution of our service model.  My team’s training solution focused primarily on the manager level and saw solid improvements in Net Promoter Scores and sales while reducing guest complaint.
  • Reality testing bases decisions on data, feedback from subject matter experts and pilots. The reality testing I did with the manager customer service training came from interviews with operational leaders and then applying a market pilot to compare improvements versus the markets that had yet to receive the training.  The decision support came when I showed the Chief Operating Officer (COO) an operational report that included the data his leadership team reviewed monthly.  Instead of focusing just on number of people who completed training, I changed the focus onto the data that mattered to my key stakeholder:  the COO.  These actions provided me with a strong realty testing of my plan before we implemented globally.
  • Impulse control safeguards leaders from rash decisions that often turn out to be problematic or based just on the leader’s perception instead of substantiated facts. Early in my career, I thought that quick decision making marked me as a strong leader who knew the solutions and who exhibited confidence and expertise.  I sometimes heard feedback from others after I made the decision, and I regretted not taking the time needed to make a select a better course of action.  Equally problematic, at times I would take way too long to make a decision because I exhibited too much impulse control and couldn’t decide.  Leaders need a happy balance between rash decisions and fear of making a decision.  A leader with high emotional intelligence won’t fear decision making because that leader has the EQ needed to be successful.

Value-Based Focus

Most organizations have a declared set of values, yet few leaders truly live them, especially when it comes to decision making.  Three of my current organization’s values hit directly at decision making.

  • Collaboration provides leaders with safety during decision making because involving other stakeholders ensures a 360 degree perspective instead of a siloed one based mainly on the leader’s view. In a previous organization, I implemented a clinical service model and collaborated with one of the call centers that historically was difficult to work with and was quick to criticize all new initiatives.  Instead of gathering details only from people I liked, I collaborated with a potential opponent and received helpful insights that made my implementation decision stronger and eased my fear of deciding how, when and where to implement. 
  • Excellence must be the target for all decisions because leaders are accountable for moving their organizations toward continuous improvement. That quest for excellence can be daunting, and some leaders shy away for fear that it’s an unattainable goal.  However, that drive will force the leader to establish a clear set of success metrics by which the leader will validate and communicate attainment of that excellence target.  Without those metrics, the leader could make a weak decision that does not meet others’ expectations or standards.
  • Respect has a marked place in decision making. Too many leaders proudly assume all decision making responsibilities and frustrate their teams that crave participation in the decision-making process.  Many hospitals have adopted Shared Governance for nurses by forming unit-based councils of frontline employees.  My current organization has made a concentrated effort to impact employees’ engagement by having leaders document ways to empower decision making from the entry levels of the talent pool.  In fact, frontline employees often understand the root issues more than leaders do.  Involving frontline staff shows respect for their expertise, viewpoint and professionalism.   It also respectfully develops them in best practices of decision making and gains their buy-in.

Systematic Approach

  • Premortem meetings focus proactively on what could go wrong or what has previously gone wrong in similar initiatives. When facilitated with a cross-functional group, these meetings help remove the decision-making fear because the group acts as a safety net to identify potential risks and ways to overcome them.  My team recently did this concerning our updates to new employee orientation, and they used a premortem to document specific risks and mitigation methods to provide successful enhancements.     
  • Pilot before a large-scale implementation will provide leaders with real-world testing to help them make a better decision on further implementation. Successful leaders strive toward purposeful innovation and continuous improvement, and the best way to remove fear during these change initiatives is to pilot with a smaller audience, collaborate with them on the process, analyze the results and make needed improvements before moving forward.  Occasionally, the pilot also tells the leader to avoid implementation because the obstacles are too great to overcome.  When introducing Succession Planning for the first time in my current organization, I piloted twice in one area of nursing, adopted changes and then implemented system-wide with great success.  In fact, nursing leaders included this as a success story in their annual business report, and I was able to use them as testimonials when other functional areas questioned the process and timing.


  • Alignment cross-functionally is essential to leadership’s success in decision making. Too often, office politics and territorialism raise their heads, derailing even good decisions because leaders did not garner that needed alignment at the start of an initiative.  This alignment of purpose, stakeholders, success criteria and planned deliverables will negate much of the leader’s fear when deciding a project’s implementation plan.  As scope creep or problems arise, this early alignment will also help the leader decide what items to add or even remove from a project so it stays true to the pre-project terms.


Emotional Intelligence

Values-Based Focus

Systematic Approach

Problem Solving



Reality Testing



Impulse Control




Putting It All Together

Making decisions is a needed competency for all leaders.  Too many leaders make their decisions in a vacuum, based on past experience, limited data and a gut feeling.  No wonder some leaders fear which way to decide because their past decisions may have raised complaints, lowered employee engagement or failed miserably.  However, the darkness of fear subsides with the light of emotional intelligence, values and alignment.  Those tools are in the leader’s control to leverage, and most leaders gain confidence when they use what is in their control to address items that might be out of their control.