Calling All Future Leaders: It’s Time To Make a Decision

by Alli Polin on January 22, 2013

Leaders Trust and Empower Others to Make Decisions

Twenty years ago, I started in my first real job out of college as a Change Management Consultant for a big consulting firm.  “The Firm” taught me how to think, how to speak, how to dress, sent me to the global consultant factory in St. Charles Illinois, and six weeks later I was on a client site cranking out work day after day.

Like many of my peers, I couldn’t wait to get promoted and have a senior level title.  I felt boxed in as a consultant, as a “doer,” and I wanted to be a “creator.”  I thrived on the fact that with each promotion came accountability not only for my work, but also for the success of my team.  I loved to brainstorm, mentor, coach and collaborate on solutions but I noticed that with each promotion, something funny started to happen.  When I offered ideas, people accepted them as if mine were the right ideas, and theirs were the wrong ideas.

By the time I was a VP, my phone would ring several times a day with questions and requests like:

  • What do you want me to do about…
  • Can you fix…
  • What do you prefer…
  • Is it OK that I…
  • Can you just call…


The people asking me these questions were smart, accomplished, hard workers that got in the habit of asking questions like they were asking for permission.  They had never been empowered before to make the hard choices on their own.  They were taught to believe that decision-making was an up the ladder thing, not a front line skill.

Of course, as leader, you need to support your team but there’s a difference between being a resource and a crutch.  There are decisions that do need to be brought to someone on the senior team but there are many decisions that take place on a daily basis that should remain in the hands of your very capable team.

During my years in corporate positions, I saw very similar behaviors from the people well above me and in my down-line; they fell into one of two camps: They were Decision Makers or Decision Tossers.

Decision Makers:

  • Ask questions, assess the situation, and turn around a decision to get back into action
  • Ask for input, but consistently bring strong recommendations to the table
  • Take action, unless explicitly outside of their responsibilities, and inform on progress

Decision Tossers:

  • Push off accountability by moving the majority of decisions up the ladder
  • Learn to be very quick to ask someone else to make the call, but rarely make recommendations on what needs to happen.  They bring facts only.
  • Embrace the leader’s ideas in a team meeting, but then grumble to their colleagues after the meeting that it’s not the path that they would have taken

So – what can leaders do about it? How can leaders support and mentor the next generation of leaders to be confident decision makers?  

Ask & Acknowledge

Ask: “What do you think we should do?”

Hold off with telling someone what to do by asking him or her the best course of action.  Once you ask, and there is a beat of silence, don’t jump in to rescue them but instead wait for them to process and make a recommendation.

Ask:  “What’s the risk?”

Walk someone through the questions that you ask yourself when making a decision and get them to reflect on the answers.  What’s the risk of action vs. the risk of inaction is a great place to start.

Ask:  “What support do you need to move forward?”

Do not abandon anyone just because you want to empower him or her.  Be clear that you are a resource and willing to take action to clear roadblocks and enable their success.  

Acknowledge: I trust you.

Be sure that people know that they have your trust.  You have faith in their ability to make decisions and move forward with good choices.  Knowing that you believe in their abilities, will help them to be and do their best.

Acknowledge: Success!

Never let an opportunity where great decision-making happens to go past without acknowledgement.  Make sure that you reflect with your team and take a moment to recognize the behaviors that you want to encourage more of in the future.

Acknowledge: Failure and the learning it brings.

When people on your team make bad choices, and you’ve empowered them and encouraged them to not come to you for every small decision, don’t beat them up; look for the learning.  Have a 1×1 to discuss alternate paths, new solutions and acknowledge challenging situations.

When you empower and trust the people on your teams to make decisions; be a leader that backs them up, clears the path, and creates the next generation of decision makers, not decision tossers.

Ultimately, many of the people you manage and mentor will end up in senior positions over the course of their careers.  Making the hard choices will be even harder if they are never empowered to make decisions along the way.

How do you empower the people on your teams and let them know that they have your trust?

(Photo credit)

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne January 22, 2013 at 10:41 am

Great post! And, good reminder how to coach those that ask for help regardless of generation.


alli January 22, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Thanks, Anne! More leaders should take the time to coach on this instead of falling into the habit of being the only one with the answers. Appreciate your comment!


cleopas mashiri January 22, 2013 at 11:27 am

good article…


alli January 22, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Many thanks, Cleopas! Thanks for your feedback.


Kennedy January 22, 2013 at 4:53 pm

There are some decisions that requires top level decision makers, things like buying decisions etc What differentiate leaders from followers is the answers each provides for:
1) Their thoughts about the decision at hand;
2) Their risk assessment feedback;
3) Whether they are confident to take up their chosen decision.


alli January 23, 2013 at 6:21 am

Kennedy –

Great points! I agree – there are some decisions that should remain at the top levels while others can be in the hands of the team. All of your points apply to every decision maker regardless of their level. Leaders do an assessment, have an opinion and are willing to present it.

Confidence in their decision is an interesting point to raise. Leaders need to always ensure that their team is confident in their decision and direction. If they have doubts, they still know that the team needs to have faith and not be stopped in their tracks by a leader that allows every decision to be laced with uncertainty.

Many thanks for your comment and insights!



Kennedy January 22, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Great article Alli!


Jon Mertz January 23, 2013 at 8:03 am

Some really solid points, Alli. For a manager, it is important to set the direction and step away, supporting where and when asked. For the one entrusted, it is important to step up and be unafraid to ask for assistance or guidance when needed. It is a combination of trust that makes it work. Great stuff! Jon


alli January 23, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Thanks, Jon! Trust on both sides of the equation is definitely what makes decision making and empowerment work. Guidance and assistance should still be there for the asking – people need to speak up when they need it. Greatly appreciate your feedback!


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