Indecision: A Death Blow to Leadership

Dr. Mark Rutland
Dr. Mark Rutland

When I was in junior high, a massive tree stood near the end zone of the high school football stadium. It thrust one wide and perfectly horizontal limb right to the edge of the back fence, which afforded cheapskates a perch from which they could actually see fairly well. Mostly we eschewed this freebie, being more interested in the girls in the stands than the contest on the field.

One night a friend and I, on our way to the paying gate, passed under this stately oak where Dalton Tomlinson, an older boy, whom we considered immensely irritating and more than a little frightening, stood on the limb above us. Dalton bitterly mocked our meek submission to the law and our pathetic willingness to actually surrender a dollar for a ticket.

"Suckers! I can see better from here and not pay a dime! Suckers! Two stupid little suckers!"

At that precise moment, his feet slipped, one to each side of the limb, and he plunged downward to straddle it with a scream of agony. He then toppled sideways and fell to the ground clutching at himself and howling in pain.

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It was a moment in which I sensed, for the first time, that there is justice in the universe. I remember it to this day and I suspect that, wherever he is, so does Dalton.

Irrespective of his memories, the redoubtable Dalton taught me two important leadership lessons that day that have stood me in good stead ever since:

1) Pay the proper price. It has been proven to me over and over again that much of the time and energy spent trying to weasel a deal turns out to be wasted. Just because your brother-in-law can "get it for you wholesale" does not mean it's a good deal.

It's good business and good stewardship to do some research and find the best price available. Negotiate the best deal you can. The last time my wife bought a car, the salesman told me not to ever bring her back there.

There can be a point, however, where being penny-wise is also being dollar-poor. Buying seconds, lower-grade products and cheap generics can backfire in terms of quality. Often—not always, but often—you really do get what you pay for.

This is not to advocate brand-conscious snobbery. It is to say that when the handles fall off the knockoff you bought out of the boot of Vito's car, you may wish that you had just paid the price for the real deal.

Adding up the per-hour cost of time spent and the gasoline used driving all the way across the city to buy it a few pennies cheaper may prove discouraging. It may not be possible to estimate the relational cost of driving everyone around you crazy by harping on the savings you got by standing on a tree limb outside the gate. Sometimes you should walk up to the correct gate and just pay the price of admission.

We live in an age that resists the entire idea that prices must be paid. Our culture is increasingly addicted to myths, such as the overnight success.

When I coached, I refused to start players who skipped practice. This sometimes cost me both on the scoreboard and with the parents, but I refused to relent. If you don't pay the price at practice, you don't play on game day.

2) Make up your mind. Dalton's greater mistake was not in trying to cheat the gate but in straddling the limb. Certainly being overly impetuous can lead to costly mistakes, but straddling the issue is seldom a healthy solution. Get all the information you can. Seek wise counsel and proceed prudently.

Yet having said all that, at some point the decision must be made. The goal is not to make a perfect decision. It is to make the best decision possible at the time with information available and, sooner rather than later, to get on the right side of the question (with both legs).

In other words, leaders know when to get on with it. Delaying, trapped "halfway between," is just fiddling while Rome burns.

I've spent many years in leadership as coach, pastor, president and businessman,and this is one thing I know. In athletics, in business and in ministry, I've learned that decision-making is at the very heart of leadership.

Indecision is death to leadership. Decisiveness is a learned leadership skill; one which Dalton undoubtedly regretted not having mastered earlier.  

Dr. Mark Rutland is president of Global Servants. A renowned communicator and New York Times best-selling author, he has over 30 years of experience in organizational leadership, having served as a senior pastor and a university president.

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