Leadership And Decisions

Here’s a great topic for a few lazy-hazy days during the summer doldrums – the vital role that decision making plays in overall leadership effectiveness. I use the expression ‘vital role’ because I believe that conventional wisdom supports the notion that an indecisive leader is no leader!

If we begin with the definition that a leader is one who "focuses the desire for change that’s resident in others and who then facilitates the creation of a sustainable new reality, we can see readily that decision making is important, if not essential, for both aspects – focusing and facilitating. Its application, however, would be somewhat different in each case.

The business of business is change – specifically the creation/preservation of value. The usual processes within the majority of business and related organizations are collaborative and value is added through efficient and effective incremental, synergistic effort. The criteria for success are contained in deliberate, optimal outcomes (what the market wants to buy) and reasonable effort, time and cost (what the organization wants to invest).

So, keeping processes ‘on-track’, which is the pursuit of success in the face of inevitable difficulties, obstacles and setbacks, requires innumerable ongoing decisions. Some decisions will be crucial (irrevocable once made); some will be complex (affecting many aspects and interests); and some will be complicated (initiating additional changes in other, non-related fields); yet others are going to be sensitive (having a profound impact on some or all).

Some decisions too are spontaneous and immediate, while others are protracted and deliberate. At the same time, part of the total decisions made will have their primary impact on the leader and likely a much larger part will impact and involve others - followers (directly affected) and collaterals (indirectly affected).

Decisions, and the way they’re made, are indeed a challenging issue and they are also central to the sustainable success that every leader seeks. They are well worthy of our attention.

What really goes on . . .
There have been significant advances in neuro-physiology and neuro-psychology in the past decade. With the assistance of some remarkable new technologies, like fMRI, we are now able to track brain activities during hither-to-fore invisible processes such as decision making and learning experiences.

The mysterious relationship that exists between brain, mind and consciousness is not yet fully revealed but we already know of the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that generates pleasure. Researchers discovered back in 1954 that dopamine produces pleasurable sensations. They also discovered that we can have too much of a good thing. Over-stimulation of the brain’s nucleus accumbens (NAcc) – the source of dopamine - results in symptoms identical to those of substance addiction – a perpetual and perhaps fatal ‘high’!

Dopamine is not just the source of pleasure and happiness; further studies showed that this one neurotransmitter actually helps to regulate all of our emotions from intense love to outright disgust. It is the common neural currency of the mind, a simple molecule that helps us to decide between alternatives. It provides a critically important link between emotions and insights and this has a profound effect on learning and decision making.

When the Greeks proposed long ago that rationality had to be the hallmark of human achievement they led us astray! It is now well established that the processes of decision making and learning actually begin with fluctuations of dopamine and the pleasurable emotional responses that follow. It is neither the amount of available information nor the sheer efficiency of our rational processes that results in expert performance but rather the effective impact of dopamine surges which we create.

Seeing it at work . . .
In Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book "How We Decide”, he offers several examples which are convincing. Among these examples are NFL quarterback Tom Brady who can make consistent, high quality decisions under extreme stress when passing the ball to best advantage in those micro-seconds before he’s ‘taken out’; Bill Robertie who is world class in three different fields – chess, backgammon and poker; and Herb Stein who is the key man and lead director in the high pressure world of soap opera production.
What’s significant about these three rather different people, all of whom are recognized as outstanding in their fields, is that each of them has discovered an extremely effective way to improve performance, one which is absolutely natural. Not one of them claims to know more than others in their area and there’s no claim for a ‘secret’ process or unique methodology either.

The natural process relates directly to dopamine production and deployment in the brain. When we are rewarded in a particular circumstance, we trigger the production of a small amount of dopamine in the NAcc and this is rapidly transmitted throughout the brain’s higher, rationally-oriented regions via spindle neurons (a fast-track distribution device unique to humans and higher primates) and we feel good!

If this is repeated more than a few times, we set up anticipation or expectation and the pleasurable feeling can actually precede the event that triggers it. The brain then continues to compare expectation with experience and, if all is as expected, we’re happy. If the causal relationship breaks down however, there’s a disruption in dopamine production and a traumatic signal is sent that alerts us to the fact that something is wrong.

Nothing focuses the mind like surprise. The disruption triggers a response in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) by means of a special impulse and this, in turn, stimulates the thalamus which redirects our attention and focus. This is sometimes referred to as the "Uh Oh” or "Oh Sh*t!” response.

At the same time, a parallel signal is sent to the hypothalamus which regulates crucial bodily response behaviours, producing somatic or physical level action, and we’re prepared for intense response.

These events in the ACC now impress a modified interpretation within the dopamine source, the NAcc, which alters our expectations – in short we’ve learned a new or modified response at the cellular level. This directly affects our response to future, similar events.

In this way, we learn. Our internal reinforcement mechanism will consistently reward us or alert us to the need for long-term change in our responsive actions. This is an essential aspect of decision making; if we can’t incorporate the lessons of the past into our future decisions, then we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes.

Myths and Truths . . .
So what does this really tell us about the way we learn and make decisions? It might be helpful to look at it through the lens of three myths or general truths that are prevalent in our society.

Myth number one is the classical idea that the best decision making is rational. It isn’t / cannot / should not be! What we refer to as wisdom is as much a product of our emotions as it is of our intellect – perhaps much more so.

In many situations we cannot think fast enough to consider all applicable options and then induce an optimal response. This process can be rapid yet still far too slow for practical use. Consider how much time Tom Brady has to evaluate his passing options before he hits the ground under the combined weight of the opposition’s defensive line. He must, in fractions of a second, evaluate three or more possibilities, decide and then execute action.

Work the math. He simply has to have another way to generate the best solution (which he does) in a highly dynamic, volatile context (read high stress!). He says that he has no idea how he actually does it – he just does it.

Similarly, Bill Robertie earns his living from speed games - which are lucrative if you can win consistently – and he does! Again he has no real awareness of his decisions, he just looks at the board and he ‘knows’ what the best move will be – there’s no time for reflective thought – decide and move on.

Myth number two tells us that it’s better to be smart than hard working. This contention is thoroughly dispelled by the authoritative research of Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist. She has demonstrated repeatedly that one of the crucial ingredients of successful education is the ability to learn from mistakes. This is precisely the technique that Tom Brady and Bill Robertie use as they rehash every game exhaustively to find ways to improve.

Regrettably, our children, all too often, are encouraged to appear to be intelligent rather than to be industrious; they are taught to avoid situations where they might fail rather than to embrace them as learning opportunities. Consider what this might do to one’s capacity and predilection to learn and profit from mistakes! Mistakes are stupid and embarrassing, right? So when do children learn how to learn?

Over time, the brain’s dopamine-inspired capacity to sustain a flexible response to intuitive appreciation becomes the source of expertise. When we transfer the lessons of experience to the cellular level by modifying dopamine production levels in a dynamic process, we are refining our ‘gut-level’ responses to a myriad of circumstances so that we will always perform to the very best of our innate abilities.

Myth number three states that practice makes perfect. Closer examination of the neuro-psychological processes involved reveals that this is also untrue; only perfect practice can make perfect! Common sense suggests that if we practice (reinforce) doing it incorrectly then we’re not going to perform at a better level. It isn’t practice at the behavioral level either that will help us, but rather practice in the mind.

We need to align our dopamine rushes with our expectations so that we are able to anticipate the optimal behaviors or responses. This explains why a political refugee on a voyage to America was able to win a chess game against a Grand Master even though he’d never touched a chess piece in his life – he’d studied a book on chess problems, replaying the moves endless times in his mind so as to help him survive incarceration.

In a similar situation, an American pilot kept in solitary confinement for five years by his captors used the device of rehearsing golf games in his mind in order to retain his sanity. Following his return to the United States he went to the golf course where he’d played several times as a non-handicapped beginner and played a game at scratch level straight away. It’s all in the mind!

The Bottom Line . . .
So how do these insights help us to be more effective at learning and as decision makers? The research demonstrates clearly that our minds are quite capable of making all types of decisions very effectively – at the cellular level! This capability was engineered within us eons ago to ensure our very survival and it is entirely competent at performing way beyond any alternative process that can be imposed by our so-called rational minds.

What the recognized high performers are doing is trusting their natural reinforcing process rather than attempting to super-impose their rational minds. This means two things – firstly, they have confidence in their ‘gut-level’ decisions and, secondly, to ensure the quality thereof, they’re prepared to invest considerable time and effort in practicing perfectly and to adjust their expectations through continuous reinforcement.

To put some realistic numbers to this investment, reflect that approximately 3,000 hours of applied effort could make you competent and 10,000 hours would be required for total mastery! This is no small investment but it pales by comparison to the endless hours and frustrations that could arise if we decide to swim against the natural current – by attempting to be purely rational! Consider also:

"Every decision you make – every decision – is not a decision about what to do. It's a decision about Who You Are. When you see this, when you understand it, everything changes. You begin to see life in a new way. All events, occurrences, and situations turn into opportunities to do what you came here to do."  -  Neale Donald Walsch,

Speaking of leadership decisions, this is the first one you need to make – now!


I'd welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your experiences will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org.

A Note to our Readers . . .

Previous series of articles on the topics of

  • Tomorrow’s Leaders – a model for SME organizations
  • The Leadership Crucible the ‘making’ of leaders
  • Leadership Characteristics a comprehensive catalogue of leader qualities
  • Succession Planning the strategic argument, principles and strategies, and
  • Managing Change – every person’s guide to painless processes

have been summarized as discussion guides for those who lead and manage through mentoring and coaching. If you would like to secure a copy for your own use, please contact us.

It is a pleasure to share ideas with you and we’d welcome your questions, suggestions and comments. They’ll assist us refine and expand the essential value of these initiatives. Thanks in anticipation for your participation.