As clients meet with me to discuss leadership, inevitably the conversation turns to decision-making. Making decisions is one of the most taxing job responsibilities that leaders have. In my experience, leaders suffer more than they should because they make too many decisions. Too often, they fail to ask, “Whose decision is it?” or “Who is the decider?”

When leaders take the burden of responsibility too far, they either want to protect others from making tough decisions or they want to extend their power. The result is often poor decision-making because these leaders do not have sufficient information. And the team members who should have made the decision do not gain valuable experience. Instead of adhering to the old Harry S. Truman adage, “The buck stops here,” these leaders should do a better job of clarifying job responsibilities, trusting their team members to make good decisions, and then holding them accountable.

Lord Carrington, whom I knew for a brief time, was minister of the British Defense Department during the Falkland Islands war. The war was launched because of a mistake a radio operator made on one of the frigates out at sea. Lord Carrington was obligated via ministerial responsibility (the British version of “The buck stops here”) to resign. After all, if he was doing his job, all those under his command must be doing their jobs, too, no matter how far removed—including the radio operator. This practice is outdated, in part, because it takes accountability away from the person who is directly responsible. And it results in leaders who are either too controlling or unjustly blamed for the bad decisions of others.

“Perhaps you can help me with a problem I’m having, Gary,” Todd, President of one of the largest financial services company on the east coast, said as we sat down to coffee. “I have this woman who works for me. She’s grown her department by thirty percent in the last year. But she hasn’t been showing up at the weekly executive meetings even when she’s in the office. Her boss thinks everything’s fine and keeps citing the thirty-percent figure, but the competition in that industry segment is scoring even higher. Plus, her department is the doorway into my company for many customers.” I asked Todd what exactly the problem was. He said, “Her!”

I asked, “Are you sure?” He looked at me quizzically. “You’re saying the problem lies with me?” I asked him whom she reported to. He said, “She reports to Dave.” I then asked, “So whose problem is it?” Begrudgingly, he said, “Dave’s.” We then investigated why he thought it was his problem to begin with. This employee did not show up for Dave’s meeting, but since it was Todd’s company and he had heard complaints, he felt it reflected badly on him. Since I don’t have an emotional investment, it was easier for me to see who was the decider here than it was for Todd. And, since Dave is invested in this woman in many ways that Todd is not, Todd might be able to supply some perspective to Dave that he is currently missing.

As a leader, Todd shouldn’t ignore the fact that he had heard complaints about this particular employee. Instead, he must hold Dave accountable for his people. Once Dave is alerted to the issue, it is no longer Todd’s issue. If Dave fails to act, however, then Todd must confront a new issue: Dave’s failure to manage his team members.

Since Todd is impacted by the failure of the employee to attend his meeting, I suggested a strategy that helps set clear boundaries. I encouraged him to cancel the next meeting if one or more people did not attend. I find it hard to employ shaming tactics, but, at the same time, they can be extremely effective. In this case, the message would be loud and clear: everyone’s participation is critical to the process. And, based upon my experience, I doubt Dave would have to cancel more than one meeting.

Employee empowerment begins with leaders asking themselves four words over and over: “Whose decision is it?”

Author's Bio: 

In 1987 Gary co-founded a company with $4,000 in start-up money. Over the years the company grew from 2 to 2200 employees. ACI Telecentrics, Inc. became the 25th largest call center outsourcer in the United States. “City Business,” a Minneapolis/St. Paul publication, distinguished Gary as one of their “40 under 40” award winners. Besides serving on the board for ACI Telecentrics, Gary has been a board member of 9 different corporations, ranging from non-profit organizations to financial institutions. Gary received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and attended Harvard Business School. He has participated in several leadership programs at institutions including the Covey Leadership Center and Disney University and the Aspen Institute as a Crown fellow. He is now a respected Executive Coach and the founder of C02Partners.