Skilled leaders take risks

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Do you have a big decision hanging over you? I've come across a couple lately. In one case a school was weighing up whether to drop A-levels and go for the international baccalaureate. In another (from the TES "Staffroom" website forum) someone was wondering how, and whether, to tell a colleague about his bad breath. (Ask any manager which one they'd rather grapple with). In each case, discussion had gone round in circles and it was clear that the leader had to act.

How are you in these circumstances? Do you find reasons for putting things off? Or are you admirably decisive?

A few years ago I visited the Stonemason's Yard attached to York Minster, where expert masons make and repair stone blocks and decorative features for the walls of the Minster. I watched one young girl as she worked with a chisel and mallet on an elaborate pinnacle intended to replace one eroded by atmospheric pollution.

The object - as work of a graduating apprentice, so literally a masterpiece - was about a metre tall. It tapered to a point and was carved into a beautiful filigree of leaves and stems so that the whole was light and hollow in appearance. The young woman had made it from scratch, over many months, from a solid stone block, and now it was nearing completion.

Was she now afraid of ruining months of work with one ill-judged blow that would knock off one of the thin leaves, or break a delicate stem?

She gave me a withering look. "I know what I'm doing," she said.

It was an excellent lesson, I think, in how to be decisive. You plan carefully, you have deep understanding of the material you're working with and confidence in your own ability. Then, when the time comes, you don't mess about. You strike your blow, sure of its effect.

The analogy's not quite right. Human beings are made of stuff that's less predictable than stone, and so the possibility that the decision is wrong is that much greater. But readiness to accept risk is part of the essence of leadership. There comes a time when seeking for more information is nothing more than simple procrastination, and the right thing to do is to close the meeting, trust your status as a master of your craft, and go with what you've got. Don't worry. Nothing's going to fall off.

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