Why leaders make poor decisions – and how to make better ones

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Mar 9, 2018

The worst leadership decisions I’ve made are those I’ve made solo. Without asking others for input.

Like the time I adopted a new mission statement for our college ministry—that I drafted myself as college pastor during a particularly inspiring afternoon at a local coffee house.

Or when I acted alone—without talking with any other team members—and committed FYI to a partnership that I thought would be quick and easy. Instead it was way too slow and oh-so-hard.

In contrast, the best decisions I make are those I make after listening to others—weighing their concerns and tracking their enthusiasm. I need FYI team members, supporters, and other leaders to affirm when we are on the right track, as well as to warn us when we might be drifting.

Whether you’re selecting a new topic to examine with your youth, or testing out culture change ideas for your church, leveraging other voices can help you make better decisions. Here are some ways I ensure that others are consistently speaking into my leadership.

1. Evaluate the quantity, quality, and gaps of your “go to” advisors.

We are often hindered by the myth that we need to have one all-encompassing mentor. Just like Luke Skywalker had Yoda in the first Star Wars trilogy, we long for an advisor who can “answer all our questions she will” (sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of Yoda-speak).

The reality is that leaders normally have a whole constellation of advisors, each of whom is well-positioned to speak into particular areas of your life and ministry. The person who helps you make better curriculum decisions might not be the person to ask about how to better support parents who have kids with special needs.

So make a list of all of your top ministry areas and note who you can call, text, or grab coffee with for wisdom in each area. How do you feel about your list of advisors? Where is there too much overlap? Where are the gaps? How can you reduce the overlap and find trusted advisors that fill in the gaps?

2. Keep a list of ongoing strategic questions.

I live with this simple rule: I assume I will forget everything. While that’s not true and my memory is actually pretty decent, living by this rule forces me to keep lots of lists.

One of my favorite lists tracks my ongoing strategic questions. I keep that list handy so that if I end up with a few extra minutes with a teammate or with another leader whose opinion I value, I don’t have to waste time splashing around in the shallow end, thinking about what to ask them. Instead, I can dive into deeper waters and gain new insights.

How do I come up with these questions? I write down any problem in our organization I don’t know how to solve. When I was a pastor, those problems ranged from how better to equip parents (especially when I wasn’t a parent) to how better to empower busy leaders who often had a hard time attending our training meetings. Now in my role at FYI, those questions include how we can best expand our organization to have broader reach and how we can better communicate to our donors how God is working through their support.

What are your biggest questions lately in your ministry? What method might work for you to track and give periodic focused attention to those questions?

3. Consider forming an Advisory Council.

At the Fuller Youth Institute, we have formed a wonderful Advisory Council. Comprised of over a dozen pastors, donors, partners, and parents, this group meets every January for a full day, along with periodic phone meetings as needed. The purpose of the Advisory Council is to “look out for the well-being of FYI by loving our mission and supporting the transformation offered by our research and resources.”

As FYI staff, we commit to our Advisory Council that we will convene well-planned discussions, provide ongoing communication and prayer requests, and wisely steward FYI’s resources of people, time, energy, networks, and finances. In return, they commit to provide us with advice and wise counsel, pray for our ongoing work, and support us tangibly as they are able.

Our January day with our Advisory Council is like FYI’s Super Bowl—our biggest day of the year that wraps up the previous year’s activities and launches us forward for another 12 months. I work harder to prepare for that meeting than any other meeting of the year.

That hard work pays off. At every meeting, our Advisory Council shares one or more nuggets of insight that feel like they align with God’s vision for our mission and work. At every gathering, they stretch us to reach further while simultaneously making sure that our pace and rhythms are sustainable both personally and professionally.

They are especially helpful when their advice builds on itself. One member shares an idea, which sparks another idea in the person sitting across the table, which stimulates one of our staff to build on their suggestions, and so on.

Who serves as your “advisory council” now, or if you don’t have one, who could you invite to help you form a group like this? Think about key parents, volunteers, and supporters in the broader church who could offer wise insight and consistent prayer for your ministry.

I’m curious: What other steps do you take to get the best input from others so you can make better decisions?

Read more on leadership and decisions

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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