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Leadership and Decisions

“Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader.” — General George S. Patton Jr.

This is a two-part pronouncement that is both trivial and silly. Pointing out that a leader needs to be willing to make decisions is trivial and suggesting that it is the most important quality in a good leader is just plain wrong. Considering each point is instructive.

Being willing to make decisions is for some people, in some situations, sometimes desirable. Then again, some people are quite willing to decide for themselves and everyone else, although they have neither the knowledge nor judgment to be permitted to decide. The truth is that people who are unwilling to decide about anything under any circumstances are few and far between. Yes, leaders need to be willing to make decisions and they also need to know when to defer to those who are more qualified. Having said that, nothing important has been said, unless one thinks that iterating the obvious is worthy of special consideration.

Here is the nub of General Patton’s pronouncement: being willing to make decisions is the most important quality in a good leader. If that’s true, virtually everyone has this preeminent leadership quality, including saints and sinners, the intellectual elite and fools alike. Surely the most important quality in a good leader is something far less ubiquitous and significantly less trivial. Being a brilliant strategist is a good candidate for a high ranking within good leadership qualities, as is an intense mission focus. Being a General or holding a similarly high position likely separates good leaders from inferior leaders. Having a track record of making good decisions that are followed by good outcomes is another factor to consider when identifying good leaders. The point is that willingness to make decisions hardly makes the short list. If one is to understand what distinguishes good leaders from the multitude, start with what makes General Patton and those like him tick; and don’t bother putting “willing to make decisions” on the analysis agenda.

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