I was talking with a friend from another Microsoft division. He complained about gridlock on his team because “no one can make a decision.” He lamented, “We discuss issues and come to some conclusions, but rarely get a resolution that sticks.” I bit my tongue. He is a friend.
Later in that same conversation, my friend asked if he should switch groups since he didn’t think there were opportunities to be promoted to the principal band. “There aren’t any broad challenges on my team,” he said. I shot back, “What, are you kidding? There’s nothing but opportunity on team mollusk. All you have to do is act like a vertebrate. Assume authority, you wuss!”
Okay, I didn’t call him a “wuss.” He is a friend. But he was also being a wuss. He said, “I can’t just assume authority. Why would they listen to me?” Let me let you in on a secret. People are sheep. Folks are afraid to risk taking responsibility and all that comes with it. If you step forward, people will follow.
“It can’t be that easy.” Yup, it is. If you are willing to take responsibility, to stick your neck out, then people will gladly give you that responsibility. After all, if they were desperate to have it, they would have stepped forward.
How do you assume authority in a situation where others hesitate? Three steps:
When other people are willing to take responsibility, you can’t just assume authority. In that situation, authority is shared, and you need to negotiate. Read my columns Controlling your boss for fun and profit and My way or the highway for more on persuasion and negotiation.
“Will anyone follow me north?” Absolutely. Remember, we are talking about situations in which others aren’t willing to make the decision—after all, making a decision risks failure. By taking responsibility, you are relieving others of that burden. They are happy about that. They are also happy to have a direction. The only price you ask for all this happiness is to follow. Of course they’ll follow.
“But what if I’m wrong?” Then take responsibility for the mistake, move on, and try again. Iterate. Be willing to absorb a little failure for a lot of learning. The experience will help you long term, and no one is perfect. At least you made a decision, and the team made progress in some direction. As I discussed in You have to make a decision, that’s far better than deadlock.
For more on what to do when you make a mistake, read I messed up.
“But what if my boss or some high-level leader is in the meeting? I can’t assume authority then, right?” Oh yes, you can! Sometimes that’s the best time for you to act—assuming no one else seems willing to step forward.
If your boss or a high-level leader is present and he makes the decision, then you should respect that and follow his guidance. However, leaders often don’t have enough information to make a decision. If you own the area or simply feel you know the best direction and no one else is taking responsibility, then go ahead and state the direction.
“But I’m not the boss!” Look, there’s a big difference between deference and respect. You should respect your management, but you shouldn’t defer to it to the point of inaction. You have an opinion. You have knowledge and experience. Your management pays you to use your head. Respect that and use it.
Once you build up your confidence and get accustomed to taking responsibility, you might get overzealous. Be careful. Not every battle is worth fighting. Stay focused on what you own, what role you play, and what’s important to you and your team.
If you take on too much responsibility, you’ll be taking it away from others. If they object, you’ll create unconstructive conflict. If they acquiesce, they will lose confidence and the capability to act with conviction. Know your boundaries. Exceeding them will eventually hurt yourself and your team.
Who’s in charge? You are. Remember when you were young and thought the president ran the government, CEOs ran companies, and the principal ran the school? You were misguided. It’s ordinary people who make the decisions and drive what happens.
There are no special qualifications to be a decision maker. All you need to do is decide to decide, and then be thoughtful using the best data available. Be willing to take responsibility, and people will gladly hand it over.
Assuming leadership is like assuming power—it can be intoxicating and hazardous. With great power comes great responsibility, so know your limits. Understand the situation, choose your battles, speak from confidence and conviction, state the direction, and people will follow.
You can do it. It helps your team and your career. Choose to lead. Our company depends upon you.