By Jack Cumming
Some years ago, I was frustrated after a business day in which a counterparty refused to make a decision about an offer we had given. Relaxing later that evening with an older friend who was a successful entrepreneur, I vented my frustration at the indecision. With his wisdom, that I prized, my very successful friend gave his explanation why so many opportunities never come to fruition due to indecision.
Some people, he noted, feel good after a decision is made. They have clarity about the pros and cons and act decisively on that balance. They are relieved to have put the question behind them.
These people are willing to accept responsibility. Responsibility means that they are willing to absorb any criticism, fair or unfair, that their action may draw. “Decisive people are the few who move the world,” my friend added.
Others, though, in fact most people, he explained, fear decision-making and the responsibility it requires. You may know someone like this. Imagine there is an opportunity, say, a low-cost flight bargain for a trip that you know is coming up. You can grab the bargain immediately. Or, you can call a family conference to discuss the pros and cons, or, if it’s a business trip, you might go down the hall to consult with your boss.
After consultation, with approval in your pocket, you go back to your computer to grab the flight deal only to find that it’s gone, and the cost of the flight is up 30%. Has something like that ever happened to you? I can assure you that I’ve had this experience more than once.
In another situation, a unique condo was available. It suited our needs perfectly. I shared the opportunity with my partners and was ready to pay the asking price and to close the deal right there and then. We had the cash; we didn’t need to dilly-dally.
It didn’t work out. My partners felt too rushed. The first responded, “I have a report I have to get out tonight. I need time to think about it.” Another said, “You’re just trying to take over, and you need our consent to move forward. I’m not prepared now to give you the okay.”
Three days later, everyone had had time to consider their doubts and needs. It was a go. The decision was obvious. By then, the apartment was taken. In cases like these, the prize goes to the swift, not to the cautious or the fearful.
Why is decisiveness such a rare quality? Some of it is human nature. If I act, I might be criticized, and I don’t want the blame. That’s a common sclerotic factor in many corporations. Instead of encouraging people to take risks on their own responsibility, the default is for people to fall off the upward career ladder if they deviate from the corporate committee norm.
Then there are those who don’t trust their own judgment. Since corporations have a natural upward career track, it’s better to stay quiet and float upward than to take a chance that might benefit the corporation greatly, or even save it from obsolescence. When corporate politics makes it safer to just go with the flow, action yields to inaction.
As Charles Schwab shared in his recent business autobiography, there are some decisions that a founder can make that no successor would ever dare to make. Perhaps he was thinking that boards defer toward a founder in a way that they won’t with a successor. We saw an example of a rogue board recently in the case of OpenAI, though that may have been the fear of one founder that another was “taking over.”
Perhaps the decline of the decisive leader reflects the rise of the social sciences in the education of young people on our college campuses. The social sciences take a collective view of society while the traditional humanities focus more closely on individual behaviors and stories.
Thus, it may be that concentration choices by college students lead later to a reluctance for people to stand out as individually decisive. The University of Chicago has recently created a program for mid-career executives to balance this social scientific/vocational bias.
As suggested by Charles Schwab’s observation, entrepreneurs tend to be more decisive and more ready to take measured risk. The most successful among them are adept at these judgmental tradeoffs, and the results are evident in the corporations that they create and build.
Taking a Chance
A person with whom I’m close, recently said to me, “Nobody ever gave me a break.” I was shaken by my friend’s willingness to be a “poor me” victim. Not long after he said that, my friend was offered a great job. I thought for sure he would take it. Instead, when I asked him later, he replied that he didn’t pursue it. “I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted” was his explanation.
If he had accepted the job, he would have had to make the most of it. He might have succeeded; he might have fallen short; we’ll never know. By not accepting the job he can live in the fog of imagining all the marvelous opportunities that might come his way if only someone would give him a break.
You have to believe in yourself and your adaptability to be able to find success. Success is grounded in action, and that requires decisiveness. Elon Musk is arguably one of the more successful people in the world for getting things done despite his incredibly insensitive, often abrasive, personality.
Recently, Musk said, “I’m naturally optimistic. If I weren’t optimistic, I wouldn’t be doing the kinds of things I’m doing.” You can be like Musk, only nicer. Love yourself. Trust yourself. Be optimistic. Embrace decisiveness. You can always learn from your mistakes, and you’ll be surprised how often you succeed while others watch.
Success belongs to those who recognize opportunity, and who decisively seize the moment. That takes responsibility. That takes decisiveness. For many, it’s more comfortable to be one of those who imagine what might have been. Which are you? If you have the courage to accept responsibility, it’s never too late to find your happy path toward success.