The Decisive Leader

Is it possible for leaders to make infallible decisions?

This is all too frequently expected and, if we are to be guided by popular opinion and the Press, it’s a sine qua non for all leaders in the public domain. But is it realistic?

Whether it is or not, we encounter insistent demands from the watchdogs of public morality. The standards are impeccable and rigorously enforced and it is this certain knowledge that appears to dissuade many would-be leaders from stepping up to the plate of public service.

There are those who would argue, with some reasonable justification, that it is not the decision competence of the individual that determines rectitude but rather the fickle forces of the political game. You could be, they assert, the most ethical and effective decision maker known to history and yet fall victim to the snapping dogs of political whim.

Be that as it may, it is still a key responsibility of the individual leader to ensure that any and all decisions taken are founded on proper emotional and rational processes – that is, regardless of the outcome or ‘perceived outcome’, the way in which the decisions were made is beyond reproach.

In the two previous issues we’ve looked at how the mind works from a neuro-physiological view and how a very small part of this process is within our control. We’ve noted that the more powerful elements are so far out-of-reach for our conscious wills that we could properly be held almost blameless. Let’s take a look at what the hapless leader can do to employ that prodigious mental miracle we call our ‘Mind’ in the most responsible manner.

The Challenge . . .
The significant roles for the leader are to focus and to facilitate. This means that the leader must first assimilate and then assess information relating to the desires and intentions of others. Then, having accomplished this faultlessly, the leader is required to direct action towards the realization of these disparate hopes and dreams in such a way that those being led remain firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat – completely accountable!

In the last issue we considered the special challenges to be found in moral situations, where the interests of others is the central factor, perhaps even paramount. The same mechanics are at work for general decision making but they have wider and more pervasive impact.

At the root is the dopamine cycle, beginning in the Nuclear Accumbens, located in the diencephalon or midbrain, the ‘anteroom’ to the rational mind and beyond our direct control. The neurotransmitter, dopamine, is transferred by means of elongated ‘spindle’ cells to the telencephalon – the prefrontal cortex – believed to be the seat of the rational mind, and well within our direct control.

This generates very pleasurable sensations which are quite capable of becoming addictive. We are not necessarily aware of the origin but we become acutely aware of the context and consequences. After several related experiences we can anticipate the associated pleasure and we’ll respond even before the stimulative conditions exist – this is very powerful indeed especially as it happens before we are fully conscious of what is happening.

However, there’s a complication when the realization of the experience on any occasion fails to measure up to the expectation and we are frustrated. At this point the Anterior Cingulate Cortex overrides the reinforcement process and effectively modifies the process at source, sending an altered signal to the Nuclear Accumbens which restricts future dopamine releases. The quality of our conscious life is adversely affected.

Thus we learn at a visceral level and our future decisions are modified accordingly – and we aren’t entirely conscious that it is even happening.

But we believe we need to assert control over our mind in order to make the best decisions; we‘ve long been taught of the virtues of the trained mind. It is evident though that many, if not most, of our decisions are made at a level that’s well outside our control. So how is such control possible?

What could we do? . . .
The effective leader doesn’t need a disciplined mind so much as a balanced one; the need is more for a lawyer than for a scientist. The mind has its own mechanisms for achieving superior outcomes and the rational mind is intricately involved. Since it is ‘newer’ in evolutionary terms than the part which actually generates the decisions it generally operates in the realms of our conscious awareness.

There are, however, the seeds of illusion here. Because the rational mind is within our conscious experience, while our emotional mind is not, we tend to believe that it alone has full control. The best analogy is that of the mahout who sits astride the neck of the elephant and seeks to control the powerful animal by means of a pointed stick behind the ear. Most times the elephant responds as predicted; occasionally it will run amok.

Consider that the emotional mind works with between ten and twelve million bits of information per second while the rational mind can handle forty bits at best. There’s no contest!

Is the relatively puny mahout really in charge of the beast? He would certainly like to think he is, but this isn’t reality.
The emotional mind, like the elephant, can overwhelm, ignore and even destroy its director if circumstances are not acceptable.

Given sufficient time though, the rational mind will influence, mollify and moderate the more powerful emotional mind. The issues may have to be broken down into bite-sized pieces and there may well have to be extensive dialogue for this to occur. In addition, there are some types of situations where the rational mind has to recognize that it’s at a clear disadvantage; in certain other situations the emotional mind should defer.

The bottom line is that we need to know our own mind(s) and to be capable of working within the respective strengths and weaknesses – in short we have to learn to manage our mind.

Getting Started . . .
Let’s begin by noting that our rational / conscious minds operate within definite parameters, namely:

  • Awareness and conscious control using singular focus, goals and standards
  • Adoption of a longer term view and conduct of post-facto checks and balances
  • Effort levels can be directed with flexible purpose, but it’s painfully slow overall, and
  • It is very sensitive to and heavily influenced by positive, pleasurable experiences.

So we tend to use this mind to construct our self identity, that which differentiates us from all others, in our minds at least. We tell our selves stories about our selves but may be less than diligent with the truth. It’s the workshop that creates our hopes and dreams, our intentions and aspirations and it directs our deliberate intrinsic motivations. Finally, on occasion, it is the Great Deceiver.

The emotional mind / adaptive unconscious operates quite differently; consider:

  • It is focused on pattern detection and is ready to alert us to any aberration in a threatening world
  • It is, subsequently, the center for learned experiences and decision taking
  • Its processes are lightning fast, effortless, spontaneous, simultaneous and they follow their own logics
  • Its processes are also deeply rooted, inaccessible and can be rigid, intolerant and unforgiving
  • It is sensitive to negative information and very slow to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

This is where we know who we really are, in our ‘heart-of-hearts’; our ideal self that we constantly strive to make reality. Our moods (affects) and emotional expressions have their origins here as well, as do our values-in-action and perspectives – the judgments we make regarding our experiences. It’s worth stressing that all events are neutral – it is we who attach values to them.

Now we have to acknowledge that these two different minds work at different speeds, involve vastly different amounts of information in their processes and develop at different rates. It’s a miracle that they ever are able to come together to create a balanced impression – but they do just that!

Sanity lies here . . .
Successful mind management is based on the acceptance that each mind is best suited to certain types of decisions. We should use our emotional mind for those decisions which are complex with multiple variables, where previous experience has helped us to formulate seasoned judgments over time and where a very rapid decision has definite benefits.

Examples of such decisions could include buying a home, a car, investing in the stock market, placing bets at the racetrack and even in choosing a life partner. No amount of rational thought is likely to improve the quality of our decision process because it cannot keep up with the sheer volume of relevant information. Similarly, if we have to make an immediate decision, like to whom we pass/hand off the ball before we are sacked by the defensive tackle, our rational mind isn’t nearly fast enough.

On the other hand, our rational mind is extremely good where there are limited (5-7) variables, where we have no prior experiences of the same type to guide us, or where we need to sell the outcome to other rational minds – that is where the power is in the presentation.

Such decisions would naturally include situations which are highly factual in content, relate to tangible evidence, can be readily measured or enumerated. Typical examples include which computer to buy, where to invest our time and effort for the next few hours or how to manage our personal budget. We often need our rational minds to keep us from emotional hijacks such as using our credit card in situations where we’d never expend the cash, lashing out at a real or imagined attack on our integrity where we might incur a serious loss, or in those situations where we’re absolutely convinced we are 110 percent right!

In these cases we need to use our rational mind to protect us from the convincing power of our emotional minds, but we also must accept that our rational minds can, and will, lie to us – we can believe whatever we want to believe! The best possible outcomes are achieved by allowing the two minds to come together naturally – but this takes time and freedom from distraction, often a luxury we do not enjoy.

The Bottom Line . . .
Leaders must focus the emotional desires of others in many situations where others may not even know of their needs; this can be achieved by both rational dialog and also by emotional appeal – and most effectively by a combination of the two strategies applied with full appreciation of the precise circumstances.

Leaders are also required to harness the actions of others to generate effortful and perhaps risky behaviours; this requires a constantly shifting approach where content and process remain highly volatile and malleable. The differences are realized through separating the root decisions from the implementation strategies and by allowing and/or encouraging others to make their own decisions under guidance.

The leader’s job is not to make the right decisions but to ensure that sound decisions are made. It is a distinct benefit to assist others with their decision processes from a position of objectivity. The leader who understands how (s)he makes decisions can assist others to become increasingly self-aware and this is the greatest benefit of all.

Clarity of thought is like fine gold – no matter how valuable it is now, it can always be further refined.

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

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.