This past summer, I had occasion to read The Splendid and the Vile, a fascinating and captivating story by Erik Larson, chronicling how Winston Churchill taught the world what true courage and decisive action is all about.
On the day Churchill became England’s prime minister, Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland. The Nazi regime had already taken Poland and Czechoslovakia, and the maniacal fuhrer would bombard England for the next year with a relentless campaign of bombing and torture, killing some 45,000 Britons. It was a time that called for true courage and decisive action, and Sir Winston was the exact individual for the job.
Taking decisive action under fire is one of the true trademarks of strong leadership. Though it’s certainly not the only one, it is a remarkable trait of those rare individuals who can lead effectively, especial when the corner office must quell a crisis.
In today’s world, we seem to be lulled into a false sense of purposeful activity, a razzmatazz of “busyness,” a phenomenon that prompted Bill Gates to remark, “Busy is the new stupid.” Some workplace analysts suggest that only 10 percent of managers spend their time productively employed in a manner that is committed and purposeful, acting on issues that are truly germane to the mission of their organization. The rest, a walloping 90%, are caught up in being “busy,” they say. I would wager that the same could be said of the employee population at large.
As long as we are texting, answering emails, running from meeting to meeting, engaging through Zoom and/or a host of other video conferencing platforms, we appear to be divinely inspired. In truth, today’s work environment allows corporate leaders little time for contemplative reflection. So instead, they end up ignoring or procrastinating in dealing with their organizations’ most critical issues. It amounts to a full employment act for management consultants (like me), but there has to be a better way.
Why is decisive action so fundamental to true leadership? In today’s work environment, leaders will never be equipped with all the information they desire before making critical decisions, and circumstances often change without warning. Great leaders, however, take decisive action when it’s called for, despite uncertainty. They evaluate the associated risks, attempt to mitigate them, and move forward with their plan.
In my corporate work across varied cultures, I have become convinced that successful and sustainable enterprises are the ones that build a culture of decisiveness, based on the principles of purposeful action. It is about a results-oriented environment versus one buried under “activity” or “busyness.” For leaders, it is about building an organization — indeed. a culture — of action-takers.
Determining a plan of approach and getting orders to the troops is not a responsibility for the leader-in-chief alone. All great leaders have a team — their generals, so to speak — to advise and carry out the actions. Ultimately, the leader must listen, deliberate and decide on the best course of action.
Ironically, the ongoing pandemic that forced us to change where and how we work has given us an incredible opportunity to hit the reset button. Leaders can free themselves of distractions and minutia and, in their place, adopt the courage of decisive action. Focus on business instead of busyness, away from social media noise and unto meaningful work that delivers value. Focus on a culture that is committed to results versus activities.