Leadership Starts With A Choice...Or Is That A Decision?

Leadership starts with a choice…a choice to lead. Where does a leader want to lead people and what will they expect those people to do along the way? One's values, principles, character, skills and more will all come into play in going through the process of making that decision and how it is carried out. But finally a choice must be made for action to occur.

That was the start of what I thought was going to be a blog about the importance of choices in leadership. Then I got caught up in a very confusing debate between the use of the word choice and decision. Leadership starts with a decision? After studying decision making and choices for over three decades, I thought I had it figured out. And now I’m writing a book “Life Is A Fork In The Road” about how we make choices that affect our life’s journey. Or I thought I was until a few hours ago.

Some of you may think that choice and decision are synonyms. The thesaurus does reference both under each word, but clearly there are differences. Are those differences important? There appears to be two different schools of thought where experts like the use of one word over the other. I never thought these two words could create such a commotion.

One school comes down clearly in favor of decisions. To them, the word choice is like choosing a flavor of ice cream or other lighter considerations. Decision on the other hand cuts off all other alternatives. It is final and irreversible so it implies a commitment. Those who follow this school of thought refer to the root of the word decide which includes “cide” or to cut off or die.

Then there is the other school of thought. Choice is about free will… the choices that we can make about things big or small. It is an action one takes. In this school of thought, the choice is the action. The decision is the process ones goes through to arrive at the choice. One is the action, the other is the thought process that led to the action.

Let’s bring this way down to earth. Imagine that you and your family are going out to the movies tonight and they’re all leaving it up to you to pick the movie. We all know how this turns out. So you pick a movie out of the 12 available at the multiplex. After the movie, your entire family turns to you and asks why did we see this movie. It was terrible.

With your heart sinking, you are now faced with having to give them an answer. How you frame that answer says a lot about you and a lot about the difference between the word choice and decision. You could do what most people do and say that all the reviews were good or your best friend thought the movie was great.

When you do that, you are explaining how you arrived at your pick. You are describing your decision process. A decision is a conclusion that is arrived at after some deliberation. Basically, you are blaming the reviews and your friend for picking this movie.

Or, you could do what so few actually do and say: “this is the movie I wanted to see or this is the movie I wanted you to see."  Now you are taking personal responsibility for your movie pick and not blaming anyone else. You have made a choice out of free will. You have taken an action and are willing to accept responsibility for that choice.

In truth, making a choice can cut off all alternatives, the same as those who prefer the word decision. And the word choice can refer to issues as difficult as any involving the word decision. Consider the use of the term Pro-Choice. That is clearly a very serious, irreversible decision. Without getting into either side of this controversial topic, why didn’t they call it Pro-Decision?

To me, everything we do is a choice, whether it is about the order of our morning routine or whether we commit our company to a major expansion into a new market. A choice can be about what movie we go to, what faith we worship, or what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable in our children.

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Decisions are about process. They are about the methods we use that could involve any combination of logic, reasoning, research as well as feelings, emotions or faith. But here is the key difference to me. A decision is the conclusion of a thought process. It is about which choice we have selected from those available and what might have led us to that choice. Choices are the available options that have been considered during the decision process and, more importantly, a choice is the action itself.

You can make a decision and not act on it. So your mind has come to a conclusion but nothing happens. Until action is taken, the decision is simply the process you went through. When you choose to act, the decision is brought to life. Choice is about taking action and taking responsibility for our actions. Decisions are the process we use to pick a choice we can act on.

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So the word choice means a lot to a leader. Regardless of what attributes a person has, what values they possess, how good their character, or what skills they have mastered, all of that is simply a possibility bursting with potential until that person makes a choice and action follows. First, a leader must make a choice…a choice to act. They may know that there are all kinds of negative consequences that could happen to them as a result of making this choice. But they move forward and accept responsibility for their actions.

Leadership starts with a choice.

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