Decision Making Blog #2: Two under-appreciated sources of leadership power

The second in a series of blogs on decision making from the Midlands Decision Support Network

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Fraser Battye, the Strategy Unit

Some forms of leaders’ power are obvious. Leaders hire and they fire. They grant resources and they withhold them. They require some things and they prohibit others. These are the ‘hard’ powers that most of us think about when asking how leaders get things done.  

Other sources of leaders’ power are less obvious. They inspire through the example of their actions. They ask well-placed, incisive questions. They form alliances and create shared agendas. They imagine compelling futures. They create fertile conditions for others to grow.  

These sources may be less obvious, but they are no less powerful for it. The leaders that have had the greatest influence on me have made significant and subtle use of these ‘soft power’ approaches.  

I’m fascinated by questions of leadership, power and influence. So it has been instructive for me to reflect on this while delivering our ‘Decision Quality for Leaders’ programme.  

Making decisions is clearly a core part of what leaders do. But are there specific insights from the literature – and our programme – that leaders could employ to enhance their impact? Do these insights suggest any further sources of power?  

I see two sources; both are under-appreciated.   

The first is deciding how to decide.  

At the risk of a clumsy sentence: deciding how to decide is an important thing to decide. And one of the stand-out themes in the decision making literature is to focus on process: we should not judge the quality of a decision by the resulting outcomes. So what does a good process look like?  

There are many frameworks, methods and approaches that address that question. Many are serviceable and most have something useful to offer. While not claiming it is flawless, we have opted to use the ‘Decision Quality Chain’ from the work of Jennifer Meyer, Carl Spetzler, Hannah Winter and others. The chain contains six links; each guides the decision making process. We have complemented this with specific tools and techniques.  

In sum, we have given decision makers a way of deciding. Adopting this in their teams, organisations and Integrated Care Systems would improve the quality of their decisions. This would increase the odds of getting the outcomes they desire. So deciding how to decide is an important source of leaders’ influence.  

The second source is deciding what to decide.  

The best decision making process in human history would achieve little if it was filled with inconsequential topics. Trivia in, trivia out. So constructing a strategically important set of ‘decisions to make’ is a further critical source of leadership power.   

Yet the process for deciding what to decide is inherently ambiguous. It is values driven: what one person demands attention for is another person’s non-problem. This is also then a ‘political’ task: getting something onto the agenda requires negotiation, contestation and coalition building. 

This can be a dark art. More mysteriously still, it can be done quietly – as this unnerving quote suggests:    

“The highest form of power in any organisation is invisible. It resides in the status quo, the issues that are never discussed and the taken-for-granted assumptions about what is appropriate. In other words, real power is silent.”​ 

Helga Drummond, The Economist Guide to Decision-Making 

Is there a way of turning up the volume? Of making the silent status quo into an explicit and discussed agenda for change? Could leaders make more of this source of power? And could they do this so a more diverse set of voices are heard?  

One immediate application I can see is for Integrated Care Systems. Drawing on diverse perspectives, they must define a set of durable, strategic issues that no single organisation could resolve. Running these issues through a high-quality decision making process could demonstrate the added value of system working.  

And doing this insulated from the heated day-to-day concerns of running services would also allow local Decision Support Units to show what analytical firepower can do when trained on strategically important questions. Integrated Care Systems could improve both the how and the what of strategic decision making.  

So there are opportunities on the table. Taking them relies upon leaders recognising the power of the decision making process. Deciding how and what to decide: these might be two of the most consequential choices most leaders will ever make.