Did you make the right decisions today?
Strategies we can deploy to guide how our decisions are made
Where you are today is a result of all the decisions you made in the past.
You will never be able to go back in time and make a different decision. Once a decision has been made, and you act on it, it’s final. You may be able to change your course at a later point in time, but you can’t rewind the clock.
Every decision you make today will be added to your past and will influence your future.
Although decisions may seem small and insignificant when you make them, the outcome tends to accumulate and grow as time moves on. Also, when you make the same decisions over and over again, neural pathways in your brain start to solidify, and decisions become automatic.
This automated behaviour is very helpful at the most fundamental level of your daily activities. You don’t have to decide which foot to put forward next when you walk down the street or decide how many times to chew before you swallow your food. These decisions take place outside your awareness. This makes life a lot easier, and the additional benefit is that you free your mind up for other things.
Once decisions disappear out of your consciousness, they become automatic.
The drawback is that more complex decisions, performed repeatedly, also tend to slip out of your awareness.
Once decisions disappear out of your consciousness, they become automatic. You will not be aware of them anymore. Recent neuroscience research also shows that your brain tends to stick with what is comfortable and reject discomfort.
This reinforces existing decisions and accelerates the speed by which repeated decisions move out of your awareness. Only continuous effort to discover what is going on in your unconscious allows you to change those patterns. In fact, the first step towards leadership mastery is about expanding your self-awareness.
Besides decisions that take place outside your awareness, there are many decisions that you can consciously influence. The two primary strategies that people deploy here are emerging and deliberate strategies. Let’s have a closer look at these decision-making strategies.
Decisions in an emerging strategy are based on new information that continuously emerges from the environment.
This strategy takes the environment as a given and employs a bottom-up approach. The environment continuously shapes the structure of your decisions. The advantage of this strategy is that it provides short-term agility and adaptability to a fast changing environment. The ones that quickly adapt usually have a time-based advantage to the ones that slowly adapt.
Besides your external environment, you also have to deal with yourself. Your core purpose, values and beliefs, that we determined in earlier exercises determine how you will react to your external environment.
They provide a set of guiding principles that provide the context for your day to day decision making. Everybody will react differently to what happens in the environment. How we deal with the environment is completely up to ourselves.
You can decide to depend only on your emerging strategy, but it has its drawbacks.
It takes the environment as a given. This means that all your decisions are made within the current or anticipated state of the environment. If the environment determines the direction you are travelling, then it may not lead you to the destination you envision. It’s like keeping the wind in your sails. It will give you maximum speed, but it is unlikely to get you where you want to be. You need another strategy to break out of the constraints of the environment; we call this a deliberate strategy.
Decisions in a deliberate strategy are based on your envisioned future, which is a conscious, long-term, top-down approach.
Once your destination is clear, each decision that aligns with it moves you closer towards that destination. This strategy goes beyond the limitations of the environment.
In fact, a clear and bold vision can completely reshape the environment. Think about how Steve Jobs’ vision completely redefined the music industry, or how Nelson Mandela’s vision completely changed the political and social landscape in South Africa.
There is no such thing as not making decisions. It may sound contradictory, but if you don’t make a decision, you do.
Having a clear vision gives you the ability to see your leadership journey in a way that is meaningful, inspiring and fulfilling. It offers you comfort and control over what you aspire to become.
“When one learns Direction in the morning, one can be content to die that evening.” – Confucius (551-479 BCE)
Balance and harmony
Emerging and deliberate strategies are two manifestations of the same strategy. Together they form your actual or realised strategy.
The two strategies can’t exist on their own. They can only last in a balanced relationship. Finding this balance is the responsibility of the leader and requires continuous adjustment. This balance ensures that leaders continue to function at an ideal level.
In eastern leadership philosophies, maintaining balance is the most important factor determining the success of a leader. It requires leaders to develop a comprehensive understanding of the theory of yin and yang.
Yin and yang mean literally the dark and light side of reality. Yin and yang reflect the interplay between all the pairs of opposites in the universe. The interaction between yin and yang influences the destiny of everything.
We can consider emerging and deliberate strategies as opposites. Emerging strategy is about who you are, your current environment, short-term, and bottom-up. Deliberate strategy is who you choose to become, your envisioned future, long-term, and top-down.
Navigate through adverse conditions
Not every decision will be easy.
You will face adverse conditions that will throw you off your intended course. These adversities emerge from two distinct directions, from the environment and from within yourself. It’s the interplay between external and internal adversities that influence the execution of your strategies.
Suppose you are sailing the ocean. You listen to the weather forecast and hear that an area of very low pressure moves in your direction. The predictions are that this area of low pressure may evolve into a hurricane. If you follow your intended course, you will likely end up in the middle of the storm. Despite your well defined deliberate strategy, your emerging strategy will need to deal with this. You know about the typical paths these hurricanes take, and you decide to avoid the full force of it by changing your course.
But wait, your internal adversities start to get into the decision mix as well. Self-doubt and fear take you by surprise. You remembered being in a hurricane in the South China Sea a few years ago. This experience has completely changed the way you think about hurricanes. You almost lost your life. Maybe, you should abandon the journey, turn around, and get back to the safe harbour you left in the morning.
Every external event you are faced with will translate into a unique personal interpretation.
Your core purpose, values and beliefs will colour the adversities you encounter. When faced with fear and self-doubt you may take the easy road and stay where you are or go back to where you feel comfortable. Living life comfortably is an internal adversity that can prevent you from reaching your destination. Risk and fear are an integral part of doing things differently. You may be surprised by what you can achieve by facing those internal adversities.
Martin Seligman in his book “Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and your life” illustrates how different people deal with difficulties. Seligman describes the distinctly different ways pessimists and optimists face adversity.
He writes, “The defining characteristics of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: circumstances, bad luck or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.”
Learning to deal with adversities is part of making decisions. It requires courage, persistence and deep self-awareness on your journey towards your envisioned future.
Your envisioned future provides the context and boundaries of all your decisions. As long as you are clear on where you want to go, you will be able to deal with any adversity. It is, therefore, essential to getting clarity on where you are heading so that you can define your strategies.
For those who do not constantly ask themselves “what should I do”, I too do not know “what should I do” for them. – Confucius, 551-479 BC
Even if you don’t know where you are going, you will still make decisions. There is no such thing as not making decisions. It may sound contradictory, but if you don’t make a decision, you do.
Decisions are the navigation tools that you use throughout your leadership journey. You will be confronted with external and internal adversities that you have to navigate carefully. To conquer the difficulties and stay on course for your journey, you need to be fully aware of your destination, at every moment of the day, and with each decision you make.
In my next article, we will take a closer look at discovering and defining your envisioned future.
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