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Making Executive Decisions

Sir Alec Issigonis, the Anglo-Greek car designer (if you happen to be a car aficionado, it is he of Morris Minor fame) once quipped that ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’. You might feel that this is pretty hard on committees, but if you’ve ever been party to a multi-lateral decision-making process, you will have some sympathy with the sentiment. The thing is, if you dispense with committees on the grounds that they are inefficient and produce impractical, indecisive or drawn-out answers to straightforward problems, what you’re left with is something equally tricky: unilateral decision-making.

When you’re running an organization, it’s hard not to feel caught between the need to solicit the opinions of others and making decisions yourself. Leaders tend to have innate self-belief, but when you have a good executive team around you, their opinions should be factored in – it’s why you want a good team around you in the first place. But, as anyone who has ever sat through a management or board meeting knows, even smart and strategically-minded colleagues can lack the ability to make quick and coherent decisions when called on to do so. First there is the weighing up of pros and cons, then airing of personal perspectives, some meandering off topic, then a decision to postpone the decision. Sound familiar?

If you take this issue in a larger context – politics, for instance – you pretty much see the same tension. Parliament, Congress, the Senate, the Supreme Court – they all exist to put a curb on any one person, or small group of people, from having too much power. The American system calls it checks and balances, and for example that is – at least in part – what prevented Donald Trump’s travel ban from coming into effect.

But, then, what is the point of having, or being, a CEO if you’re not able to make decisions on your own? If your company is being led by the board and shareholders, and the CEO is powerless to make his or her own decisions, does the role not invalidate itself? Why are some CEOs so central to successful companies and not to others? Does it have anything to do with being given free rein?

This is a topic of some pretty serious scholarly debate. There are some who argue that giving a CEO too much power makes them un-fireable, and those who argue that the whole notion of having a chief executive is outdated and that no one person can make a company more or less successful – Apple continuing to thrive after Steve Jobs’s demise being one often-cited example (to say nothing of the CEOs who ran companies into the ground but still walked away with big pay outs).

Our view is that you’re the only one who knows when the big decision needs to be made, no matter how difficult, and no matter how many sides of the argument you can entertain in your head. As many CEOs would tell you, being at the top is in large part about stewardship and keeping the show on the road, but from time to time it can get hairy, and that is never more so than when an incredibly tough decision needs to be made, and it needs to be made alone.

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