Becoming a More Decisive Leader

You go to your editor because you’re confused about how to best approach an upcoming story.

Instead of providing guidance about the story’s frame or talking you through possible sources, the editor says they aren’t sure who you should interview and asks your opinion. They also say they’re uncertain if the story is worth writing, ending the conversation with “maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.”

You’re more confused than when you asked for help. Are you supposed to write the story or not? If so, you’ll have to figure out where to start because you aren’t sure who to contact or what the story is even about.

You likely don’t recognize the importance of decisive leadership — proactively making good decisions for your team or organization — until you’ve worked with an indecisive leader.

Once you’ve worked with an indecisive leader (an oxymoronic term, in my opinion), you know you don’t want to work with one again and you certainly don’t ever want to be one. But are you already?

Becoming a More Decisive Leader

Are you a decisive leader?

The best way to know if you’re a decisive leader is to ask those you lead. If you aren’t comfortable asking, candidly answer the following questions about yourself in your leadership role:

  • Do you gather the right amount of information before making decisions? Decisive leaders gather the information they need to make an informed decision, but they don’t procrastinate making decisions with continued information gathering.
  • Do I use all of my resources when collecting information? Decisive leaders don’t just speculate or guess. They seek out answers from any resource necessary, whether it be online or human.
  • Do I weigh the costs of decision-making? Decisive leaders decide whether the cost is greater to make a mistake or to avoid making a decision at all.
  • Do I properly evaluate decisions? Decisive leaders rely on a combination of information and intuition when making decisions, but they don’t use one or the other.
  • Do I make decisions when I need to? Decisive leaders know when a decision needs to be made immediately or when they can spend time gathering more data and thinking it over.

If you answered “yes” honestly to all of the questions above, then you’re probably a decisive leader. The fewer questions you responded to in the affirmative, the less decisive you are.

Still not sure if you’re a decisive leader or want to become more decisive? The tips below can help.

Developing into a more decisive leader

Decisive leaders aren’t afraid to make decisions. They gather information quickly, analyze the costs/benefits of their choices and react in the way they believe is best for their team and organization. Active leaders aren’t always right, but they are oriented toward action. They understand that action lends itself to progress, overthinking does not.

Here are some ways you can become a more decisive leader.

Identify and gather information

Student leaders are bad at recognizing what they already know. You’re in a leadership position for a reason. If you’re a student editor, you were chosen for the job because of your course and staff experience. Don’t undermine that experience. At the same time, you need to recognize the gaps in your knowledge. What information are you missing that you need to make this decision? Where can you find that information? Not sure of either? Ask your supervising editor or adviser for help.

Avoid gathering too much information

Information gathering seems productive. After all, you’re researching something. How can that not be good? But a lot of people use information gathering as a form of procrastination, typically because of uncertainty. You can’t spend time procrastinating when your staff needs you to make a decision. The best way to avoid gathering too much information is to set and meet deadlines. Deadlines won’t allow you to procrastinate too long on making choices.

Understand your decisive leadership tendencies

I tend to make decisions too quickly. I rely on my gut instinct and often should stop to ask critical questions and gather a bit of information. Others may gather a ton of information and want to ponder a question for a day or more. Understanding your tendencies toward decision-making helps you not veer too much in one direction or the other.

Keep your word

Do what you say you will do. It’s easy to talk about how or why to do something, but action is far more important. Don’t just talk things to death. Take action. Do things.

Display confidence

No one wants to work for an editor who doesn’t seem to know what they’re doing. You aren’t always going to feel 100% confident. That’s ok. Be decisive and display confidence to your team. If you make the wrong decision, own up to it, decide if any damage control needs to be done, do it, then move on.

Embrace immediacy

Immediacy is especially important in the news business, and your staff probably doesn’t have a lot of time to wait on you to make decisions. Practice making decisions quickly (like immediately, on-the-spot). Remember that making the next right move is usually better than waiting to have a perfect plan.

Understand your role

Don’t be so quick to make a decision that you don’t consider whether it’s yours to make. You don’t want to overstep your role by making a decision that someone else on your team should make. This doesn’t mean pushing decisions off on others. It means you converse with the person whose role it is to make the decision, explain the question to them, tell them you believe it’s their role to make the decision, then ask them to do so. If they need help making the decision, be willing to provide your input, but don’t force it on them without being asked.

Know your why

Assume someone will question every decision you make. Be able to explain why you made the decision you made. Talk it out and understand your why when you make the decision. Reasons sound like excuses unless they’re steeped in critical thinking.

Focus on your mission

It’s much more difficult to make a poor decision if you focus on the mission of your publication and serving your readers. If in doubt, do what’s best for your readers. That’s most likely the right thing.

Consider your team

How does your team feel about an issue? What do they think you should do? While you don’t want to get so many views or opinions that they become noise in your decision-making, you do want to at least stop to consider how your decision will affect your team. I would say your team comes right behind your audience in journalistic decision-making.

Let go of fear

Fear is the most common reason people are indecisive. They’re afraid to make a decision because they don’t want to be wrong or make a mistake. We all experience this. Even the most decisive leaders are sometimes afraid to make a decision. The difference is they do it anyway. They decide that, if they fail, they will fail forward.

Embrace mistakes

The greatest thing about being a student journalist or student editor is that you’re expected to make mistakes. You’re learning. Learning is a process that includes poor decisions. Embrace mistakes, learn from them and move forward. A wrong decision is better than no decision at all. Just don’t forget to apologize or take corrective action if you need to.

Being a decisive leader

Being the leader doesn’t mean you have all of the answers, but it does mean your team will look to you for guidance. You don’t want to leave them with more questions than answers when they do. Practice being a more decisive leader. It will help you develop as a leader and it will help your team accomplish even more great work.

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