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Great leaders recognize the importance of process in decision making

Great leaders recognize the importance of process in decision making

September 26, 2023
Howard Cohen

When it comes to leading volunteers, process is your friend. Establishing or clarifying (and following) a decision-making process in advance of making that decision offers the best chance of reaching agreement or, at least, investing the decision with legitimacy in the face of those who might not agree with the outcome.

Using a well-established process or accepting a new one lays the groundwork for getting past disagreements and keeping dissenters engaged. A wise leader of volunteers will spend time discussing how a decision will be made before jumping into making it. This requires understanding the elements of a good decision process.

Before diving into leading a group to make a decision, a wise leader of volunteers will take time to evaluate and discuss the decision process with the group or committee. Is the process likely to produce a result? Or is there a risk the process itself will become a sticking point? To answer this question a leader of volunteers must understand the elements of a good process. 

An effective process for addressing an issue to be decided should have the following components:

  • Identification of a common relevant knowledge base: What information will be required to reach a decision?
  • Clarity about who will make the final decision: Does the group decide or make a recommendation to the leader or someone else?
  • Time identified for reflection and discussion: Will every group member have an opportunity to weigh in on the matter under discussion? Will there be dialogue? Will discussion take place in person or through electronic media?
  • Arriving at a decision: Will the decision be made by a vote of the group or committee? Will consensus be required? Will the leader make the decision after hearing the group members’ thoughts?
  • Time frame: Work back from the final decision date. Do not allow the process to get stuck.

If an organization has well-defined, generally accepted processes for making some decisions, it is best to use them. A group or committee that follows clearly articulated steps in hiring, budgeting, planning and so on has the best chance of reaching a decision that will stand up to scrutiny. 

Cooking up an ad hoc process when an existing process will do the job is an invitation to make things more difficult.

Using a known process is especially important when dealing with controversial matters or matters over which there are significant disagreements within the organization. If the existing processes are inadequate or otherwise controversial, by all means design a new one. In that case, it is important to secure agreement about the process before jumping in to making a decision.

The leader’s role is to guide the group or committee through a process that reaches a decision that moves the organization along in its assigned work. A poor process or a lack of process may leave the organization stuck in its tracks. 

In authority-based committees the leader may be able to drive a divided group to a decision despite an ineffective process. In voluntary committees, however, that is not so clear, particularly if the volunteers believe the decision to have been reached arbitrarily. They may simply refuse to support it.

Some “rules of thumb” for leading a process

  • Don’t revise your process mid-stream.
  • Everyone who has an interest in the outcome should be offered an opportunity to participate (even if only by completing a questionnaire or responding to an open invitation).
  • No process should be open-ended. Participants should be given deadlines. It’s OK to move ahead if some participants are non-responders.
  • If there will be voting, determine who will be entitled to vote in advance.
  • If there will be voting, determine the percentage of votes needed to make a decision or recommendation in advance.
  • Live with the outcome … even if you don’t entirely agree with it.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.