Ever seen The Outsiders? After you get over the number of famous actors crammed into it with massive amounts of Crisco in their hair (Cruise, Swayze, Lowe, Dillon, Macchio, Estevez, Diane Lane – alright, she didn’t have Crisco in her hair) you get to see the one defining scene. Ponyboy and Johnny are on the lam from the man. They’re hiding out in an abandoned church. Then it happens.
For some reason a school bus full of kids is visiting the boarded up abandoned church for a school field trip (and I thought going to the museum was lame when I was a kid). Somehow the church catches fire and several children are trapped inside (apparently there weren’t as many lawyers in the 50’s because that setup screams negligence lawsuit).
Ponyboy and Johnny roll up on the scene as the flames roar. Then Ponyboy does it – he demonstrates the 10th Leadership Principle in the blink of an eye.
The principle is “make sound and timely decisions.” Ponyboy quickly assesses the situation and charges the building. Johnny follows without hesitation. They break into the building and save the kids from the fire. Ultimately, however, their heroic efforts cost Johnny his life.
Make sound and timely decisions. Allow me to disaggregate this principle. The timely part is oft overlooked by those in leadership roles. All too many times these days, folks seem more interested in mitigating risk to their careers. To do so, they invest countless hours of analysis to button up every last possible risk. In the process they lose their window to act. Even worse, they frustrate their teams who are doing tons of work that will never result in anything.
This principle calls for you to make the decision NOW. Make a decision. Do something. And yes, you’ll be wrong sometimes. That’s why being a leader is a hard job. I’ve been wrong plenty of times.
As a young platoon leader, I was the lead tank of the lead platoon of the lead company… you get the point. My vehicle was the tip of the spear. The battalion followed where I personally went (scary notion, huh?). At a training event, I had a choice during a mock battle – left or right.
I didn’t have the luxury of assessing those two simple options. I had to decide. Left. We “died” and so did the rest of our company. I led us straight into an ambush. In the real world we’d really be dead. Thing is, I decided. We acted. We died. But we had a chance of success. If I simply sat there weighing my options until I was 100% sure of the “right” decision, we would have had artillery and red air called in on us while I sat and deliberated.
Act. Now. Ponyboy did. He assessed and acted. He entered that burning building and saved the kids. The window didn’t pass. As a leader, you’ll sometimes have to dive into those dangerous burning buildings without knowing how stable the roof is or what the outcome might be. That’s what being a leader is about.
Now it’s easy to question the “sound” part of Ponyboy’s decision. Johnny died because neither of them knew where the kids were (which increased the time they had to spend in the church) nor were they aware of how weak the roof was. On top of that, both of them were heavy smokers to begin with which impaired their ability to pull off the rescue (oh the irony!). Ultimately, the soundness (or lack thereof) surrounding this decision is what killed Johnny.
Could they have made a sounder decision? Maybe. Maybe not. I know it’s an exaggerated example here but you see what I’m getting at. As a leader you need to ensure you’ve got as much information as possible so you can make decisions that make sense.
There I go again talking out of both sides of my mouth. Be sound and have the information but decide now and don’t be paralyzed by the lack of data. Yes. Exactly. This principle is about balance. As a leader you’ve got to find that point and recognize when decision making is leaning too far in one direction or the other. If you feel like you’re being slowed down and people are asking “why don’t we just do something already” you’re probably erring too far on the side of “sound.” If you’re making the call and everyone around you has panicked faces and is freaking out, you might be erring too far toward “timely.”
Both aspects have equal importance in decision making (sound and timely). The most important part though is that you have to make a decision. That’s why you get paid the big bucks. Be like Ponyboy (only don’t let your friend die when the flaming roof collapses on him).
What challenges do you face applying this principle? Where do you see it go well and where does it go wrong in your organization? How do you ensure you strike the balance between these concepts?
– Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC