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Decisive Leaders: Fast decisions in uncertain times

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When our future is uncertain and our workload is high, we need leaders who can make big decisions, fast.

As we start the COVID leadership autopsies with the benefit of glorious hindsight, there is one clear factor that seems to stand out from the rest.

It's a leadership factor that counts regardless of social and geographic differences, population size and homogeneity, religious and ideological positions, health and communications infrastructure or relative wealth.

It makes the difference at every level of leadership, and across every sector (government, corporate, sporting, NGO, et al).

Speed.

The societies, governments and organisations who've performed the best are the ones who, early on, were comfortable making big calls based on very limited information. 

They read the early warning signals, weighed up the impact of not acting, and made swift, sweeping decisions about what to do. And man, that is hard.

The societies, governments and organisations who've performed the best are the ones who, early on, were comfortable making big calls based on very limited information. 

When things are up in the air and we don’t know how the chips will fall, we tend to delay decisions until things are clearer. The old 'wait and see'.

When our reputations are at risk, it's easier to err on the side of "not looking stupid if we get it wrong", than "we'd rather look stupid than risk catastrophe." That's particularly true in the public service, where all decisions are scrutinised in detail later. (Like we are now...)

A lack of urgency was one of the first failure points for pandemic responses across the world, and for many, set the tone for how the next two years would play out. While some leaders waited for more certain information, health systems collapsed under the pressure and people became confused, lost trust and turned on each other.

It was only those who were willing to slam the borders shut, send everyone home, and risk looking like they'd overreacted after the fact, who prevented mass deaths.

Sure, they had to change tack 12 times after the initial response. Sure, some people thought they'd gone mad, and the opposition and media had a field day with their analysis from the safety of the cheap seats. But that's cool, the KPI here wasn't saving face - it was doing the right thing.

This is a great lesson in what makes leadership so important, and also what makes it so bloody hard. It's not easy to put a stake in the ground and make decisions with huge impact, especially when they might be wrong. The more senior you are, the more important your decisions get - and the less certainty you get to make them with.

If leadership was easy, everyone would do it. Most people are more comfortable sitting home on their couch scoffing at the inadequacies of politicians and CEOs than they would be in the hot seat. And rightly so.

But we need people who are willing to take on that mantle, be bold, take risks, and cop the flak in the process, or we all lose out.

TL;DR: When sh*t gets real, and the future is uncertain, we need leaders who can make big decisions, fast.