Decisiveness and Leadership
In recent years, two books made a major impact on the popular discussion of decision-making, especially in the business context: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Both books recognize that snap decisions can be more effective than slow, careful, rational decision-making, but they can also be catastrophic. Gladwell especially tries to help the reader avoid mistakes while at the same time maximizing quick, decisive action. Kahneman offers a much more scientific analysis of the topic. The words of my speech teacher at Princeton Theological Seminary, William Beeners, summarize the whole discussion well: “When you have overprepared, you can wing it.” Snap decision-making works best when we are deeply steeped in the issues that we must make choices about.
The Apostle Paul also offers insight on being decisive in Ephesians 5:15–16: “Be very careful, then, how you live … making the most of every opportunity” (NIV). For Christians who take the Bible seriously as their authority, such advice is problematic: since we cannot, in fact, make the most of every opportunity. There are always opportunity costs in any choice we make. Choosing to pursue one opportunity always means forgoing other ones. We live as creatures limited by time and space and relative knowledge of past, present, and future facts and consequences. Fortunately, a more literal translation resolves the dilemma, such as the English Standard Version’s reading: “making the best use of the time.” In this understanding, Paul would encourage us to distinguish between possible opportunities to achieve the best possible investment of our time. An even more literal translation of the Greek phrase exagorazomenoi ton kairon would be “seizing the opportune moment.” That would imply not just jumping at every opportunity but discerning which moments are God-given opportunities that fulfill God’s will. Along those lines, the following verse urges us to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17 ESV).
The character Brutus, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, soliloquizes that:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
How are we to decide what choices offer us God-given opportunities to fulfill God’s will and achieve transformational outcomes in our lives, in our businesses, and in the communities we seek to serve? Paul suggests that we walk in the Spirit. The full context of Ephesians 5:15–20 (NIV) explains in three, repetitive strains:
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this lyrical advice, he drives home the point that we do not live carefully by being (1) unwise, (2) foolish, or (3) drunk, but rather by (1) seizing God’s moments of opportunity, (2) understanding God’s will, and (3) being filled with the Spirit. When we live in constant communion with God—walking in the Spirit—we can be decisive, because we have the mind of Christ.
My father once told me of a dream he had in which he saw a tornado approaching—an all too common experience in our native Alabama. He ran to his father and said, “Daddy, we’ve got to pray!” My grandfather calmly responded, “I have already prayed,” and instantly, my father’s fears went away. Decisiveness does not come from the ability to make rash judgments. It comes from having already done our homework in knowing the details in our business, family, and personal lives, and we can add the crucial spiritual dimension through prayer and communion with God. As leaders, we owe it to those who depend on us to make the most of every opportunity to pray.