Deciding your fate

  • Published
  • By Maj. Leslie Maher
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing plans and programs chief
One night last month when the kids were at my sister's, my husband and I decided to go out to dinner. He asked me where we should go and after a long, tiring day, my first thought was "I have made a thousand decisions today - I'm not making this one." (Actually, I blurted it out - so much for my inside voice)

So, he grudgingly decided the place and I was secretly not impressed with his choice. How many times as leaders have you found yourself in this same situation, not interested in making a decision but then critical of the outcome?

Decision-making is a skill we are all challenged with throughout our careers. Since we can't be everywhere all of the time, most issues have to be decided then worked through delegation - knowing when and what can be done by those entrusted with the unit's mission. The key word here is TRUST.

I remember the first time I was left to my own devices as a two-striper. I was in charge of a debriefing for one of the F-117A Aircraft Maintenance Units.

After a short period in the shop, I decided I didn't like the way things were run and told the non-commissioned officer in charge of the AMU I was changing things. He let me go ahead, so I went about making several changes in recordkeeping, reporting, and overall process flow.

While he wasn't crazy about the changes, he trusted me to do the right thing. I didn't get the changes right the first time - I had to tinker with my decisions until I got the result I wanted. That sergeant never criticized the process; he just gently nudged me in the right direction when the path I chose wasn't quite working right.

I remember the pride of seeing my touch on how the shop was ran, and continued to run even after I was long gone. The example above is a good example of an Air Force leader's way of honing a young Airman's decision-making skill.

However, with the drawdown in personnel and increase in operations tempo over the last decade, many have decided it is just easier to do most projects themselves than to take the time to teach, trust and help others to grow.

One other disturbing trend I have seen in my more than 20 years is the constant second guessing of those who do step out of their comfort zones and make the tough decisions. Risk-taking is a huge component of decision-making. Again, it gets back to trust - trusting your subordinates are competent and will make the right decisions on the right issues.

At first, this will keep you up at night and most people's tendency is to grill those entrusted on every detail of the issue. Over time it gets easier. Really, it does.

As the chief of XP, I have just struggled through "the year of a million decisions". One of the changes I put before my team shortly after I started - make your own decisions and act on them accordingly (there is no checklist on what to do or what is expected in XP - it is totally on-the-job training).

I knew I was putting myself out on a limb because they weren't always going to take the programs in the same directions I had preconceived in my head. The "letting go" of control drove me crazy - but I had no choice, one person can't be everywhere all of the time. My team struggled at first, and my job was to always provide top cover.

Many pitfalls occurred when we made decisions considered "outside our lane." To be frank, we were making decisions when we probably shouldn't have, just to move processes along and relieve our leadership from the thousands of mundane issues that come with preparing for inspections.

I am here to tell you we didn't always get it right. In fact, I was just happy when we got it right most of the time. The risk paid off - we survived three major inspections and two site headquarter visits amidst constant deployments, numerous distinguished visitor visits, and the thousands of day-to-day "gotta-dos." The smart decision-making at all levels was critical for our team to get through the last year.

Lastly, good decision-making requires learning the art of negotiation. My most painful lessons were learned when I didn't take in the concerns of those involved with the issue. It is so enticing to think one person can just make a decision and everyone else will fall in line and react the way you envisioned.

Believe me, this never, ever happens. Decision-making takes time, involvement, and careful consideration of the investments of others. You don't have to include everyone's two cents - but you have to be ready to answer why you didn't include it to get buy in from those you are discounting.

One final point to make here is that if you are abstaining from the vote - shut up and quietly comply with the decision - negotiation time was over for you when you decided to abstain. Nothing is more aggravating than hearing from those that didn't have an interest before now coming to you with all their "great idea bombs."

I like to think I have descent decision-making talents, but the truth is great decision-making skill is honed over a lifetime. Through delegation, smart risk-taking and artful negotiation anyone can make sound decisions he or she can live with.

Finally, I leave you with one last thought. Don't shy away from making a decision - indecisiveness is truly unforgiveable. Defendable decision making is always preferred - even if the situation goes awry.