Strategic Leadership and Decision Making



Strategic leaders need teams to solve problems and to develop policy alternatives to meet the challenges of working in "permanent white water." This is particularly true when dealing with policy issues and problems related to resource allocation decisions. A high-performing team will use, as one of several tools, a consensus process in estimating the situation and developing policy recommendations at the strategic level of government, business, or in other national or international organizations. The consensus team model uses a systems approach in dealing with strategic problems.


Inputs to the consensus decision making process include the leader, the team members, and other resources used to forge a decision. Clearly, the quality of the decision making process and the decision itself are affected by the quality of the inputs. This is especially true with regard to the team leader's contributions.

The leader of a strategic team has two critical responsibilities. First, the leader is accountable for the effective functioning of the team. Key to maintaining effective functioning is the team's ability to step back periodically and critically examine what is happening. Second, the leader is responsible for developing and maintaining a stable structure as the team engages in its work. This responsibility hinges on the team's meta-decision. A meta-decision is a front-end decision about how the team is going to reach consensus and make a decision.

Consensus acts as an energy force in developing unity of action and effort. Consensus involves both process and outcomes. It is not dictatorial, idealistic, conforming, bland, or sterile. Developing effective consensus has much to do with widespread participation, acceptance, and support for decision implementation.


The process is divided into Three Pillars:

OUTPUT. High-performing teams employ consensus decision making. Common purpose and goals, shared leadership roles, personal and mutual accountability, and collective work products are the values gained from this consensus approach.

FEEDBACK. Strategic leaders have an opportunity to expand power through the feedback process in the model. The most dynamic aspect of the consensus team approach may be in employing feedback effectively to both team members and the team leader. Meaningful feedback is essential to making this process work.

A FINAL WORD. How you make decisions at the strategic level is just as important as the decision itself. The best decision in the world is nothing without a powerful consensus for action, and useless unless it has produced a decision that is good for the organization. Decision makers must come armed with critical thinking skills that will allow them to efficiently and effectively function at the strategic level.


In addition to the CTDM Model, there are a number of other tactics and techniques that can enhance the decision making processes of strategic leaders. Tactics and techniques are instruments to use to achieve some desired end. We measure a piece of lumber before cutting it to a precise length and angle to fit it in a structure. We choose a particular iron to approach the green given certain wind conditions. We know what we want and we choose our tools from experience, or the practices of others.

Techniques are methods a person uses to complete the technical requirements associated with a particular role. Techniques represent knowledge of specialized methods and the skill to apply them. Tactics are more like plans and procedures that would be used to achieve some objective. For example, a leader might use as a tactic the CTDM, and use evaluation of the work as a technique.

Some techniques and tactics break down into simple lists of things that leaders have used successfully. Retired General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, developed a collection of 'rules' which he kept very much in evidence on his desk:

1. It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.

2. Get mad, then get over it.

3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.

4. It can be done!

5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.

6. Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.

7. You can't make someone else's choices.

8. Check small things.

9. Share credit.

10. Remain calm. Be kind.

11. Have a vision. Be demanding.

12. Don't take counsel of your fears or naysaysers.

13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

The following six sections develop the processes of team tactics and techniques.

SECTION 1: Leader Planning and Preparation

The team leader is responsible for laying the groundwork for team activities. A joint/interagency team leader has several issues to consider before his or her team gets down to business.  

1. Clarify the team's identity and charter.

Establish a close working relationship with the Executive Sponsor-the strategic decision maker empowering the team. The Executive Sponsor will guide team efforts and maintain liaison with the other strategic decision makers. This reduces the amount of mixed guidance to the team and clarifies the reporting relationship between the team and strategic decision makers. Clarify and gain agreement on the following issues (Clark and Wheelwright 1992):

2. Understand the complexity of the problem.

Do not go into your first meeting cold. Track the history of the problem and related policy decisions. Develop your intuition about how the policy has taken shape, how the problem evolved to its present state, and how organizations have responded. Understand the stakeholders, their interests and their competitors. Get an accurate view of how stakeholders will react in team activities. Clarify the Executive Sponsor's current political agenda. What perceived need inspired the decision to form a team? What are the risks and consequences of team failure? In the end, what really matters to the strategic decision makers? 

3. Write out the team's mission.

Define the team's mission-when, who, what, to do what and where.

4. Determine the conceptual framework.

Most problems lend themselves to a conceptual framework for resolution. In many cases, the systems approach is very useful. Once identified, a conceptual framework serves as a basis for designing the team's process plan. For example, the Framework for Grand Strategy suggests that the team should first assess the international environment, and then assess the current U.S. domestic situation. Overall, the conceptual framework guides the work of the team.

5. Envision goals (Zsambok, et al. 1992)

6. Determine needed functional expertise to fill gaps.

The conceptual framework may also indicate information needs. These gaps may require the team to rely on outside experts or use of a "fact-finding" subgroup. Consider how the team will fill its information needs.

7. Keep pace with the environment (Eisenhardt, 1990).

You may have to deliver a product quickly. Keeping pace may require "fast decision making." Before you design your team's process plan, you may need to employ tactics to accelerate the team's decision making processes:

8. Design a process plan (Zsambok, et al. 1992).

Describe how your team will approach its work-the sequence of steps and delegation of responsibilities. Consider the conceptual framework you identified to solve the problem in laying out the major steps in the team's process plan. Make sure your plan reflects the sequential step-by-step nature of tasks.

Establish checkpoints in the process plan to review team progress. Plan on periodically checking to see if the team is still on course. Be prepared to recycle on certain issues. Use checkpoints to adjust the team's process.

Write out a team process plan and allocate time available. Frequently, the structure of most "unstructured" strategic decisions involves three basic phases:

9. Manage time (Zsambok, et al, 1992).

Do not go further in your process planning without properly allocating time available to each portion of the team's process plan. Outline a time schedule. Include periodic "alarm bells" to alert the team to approaching deadlines. Protect the last part of a work period to review the team's product and to complete final revision. This requires constant monitoring of a team's schedule. To avoid a last minute crash, build cushions into time schedules.

10. Structure the team.

Consider tasks that need to be done and tailor the team to get the work done. Use designated subgroups as necessary, such as a fact finding subgroup. Be careful that you properly integrate the work of a subgroup into the team's process plan. Make sure that you do not employ subgroups in parallel when their products are sequential in nature.

11. Determine assignment of member roles and functions.

Define team member roles and functions. There are a few key functions that must be assigned initially. These include time keeper, recorder, spokesman, and chart maker/report writer. Relate team member roles and functions to one another. This understanding of interrelated roles and functions enables team members to integrate their work, anticipate what should occur and, when the unexpected happens, react accordingly.

12. Plan to control internal politics (Eisenhardt, and Bourgeois, 1988).

Control internal politics by empowering team members. When the leader empowers members, most see little need or have any desire to engage in politics.

13. Plan for reflective debate.

Encourage team members to speak their minds. Recognize that if debate is left unstructured, there is a high cost to team unity. Unstructured debate can get emotional. Lingering rivalries are possible. Do not allow extreme and strident voices to dominate discourse and obstruct the team's process.

Employ proven methods that improve the quality of strategic decisions: include Dialectic Inquiry and Devil's Advocate. The Dialectic Inquiry method is useful in paring down and producing a high quality assessment of the situation. The Devil's Advocate method is useful in producing a high quality course of action.

14. Plan for forging team consensus.

Consider how you plan to build consensus on situation assessment and your team's proposed recommendation. The basic idea is that everyone must have their say. If push comes to shove, consider using the two-step procedure called "consensus with qualification" to push for consensus.

15. Lay out the agenda for the first meeting.

There is always a temptation to plunge into the problem. Your team will do better in the long run if you spend equal time on all three aspects, especially at the first meeting.

16. Arrange details of first meeting.

Let team members know the following details of the team meeting so they can prepare:

SECTION 2: A General Team Process Plan

A team process plan describes how a team will sequence steps and delegate responsibilities. The team also should gain consensus on a procedure that resolves conflict quickly.

1a Initial Meeting Team goals, ground rules,
  member roles, etc.
  Conceptual framework
  and process plan.

If you need a conceptual framework, use the tried and true "systems approach" to gain insight into what is happening. A systems approach enables the team to identify key components and how they interrelate. Identify cause-and-effect patterns. Then the team can better understand how possible decisions are likely to turn out.

1b Problem Awareness Historical view, key trends, major issues.

Start with a historical frame of reference. Track the evolution of the problem and related policy decisions. Discuss how the policy has taken shape, how the problem evolved to its present state, and how organizations have responded.

2 Stakeholders Stakeholder views.

Understand the interests of the stakeholders and their competitors; obtain an accurate view of how they have reacted to policy decisions. Consider the stakeholders' frames of reference and perspectives. Search for a shared vision of the future--identify the stakeholders' "common ground."

3 Assess the Situation (Zsambok) Frames of references, time horizon.

Using the systems approach, reframe the problem using more frames of reference-political, structural, symbolic, human resources, economic, military, social, or religious to make sense out of the complex strategic situation. This includes not only a numerical expansion, but also a qualitative amplification of existing frames of reference. Seek all viewpoints to broaden the team's situation assessment. Even under severe time pressure, remain aware of dissenting perspectives and weigh team assessments accordingly.

4 Clarify the Problem Confirm team goals & debate the issues.

Encourage reflective debate. An open, frank, and combative dialogue on major points of difference and conflicting preferences can be constructive. However, recognize that unstructured debate carries a high cost. Do not allow extreme and strident voices to dominate and obstruct the team's process.

Ensure all members have a shared understanding of the problem before proceeding. Reassess a situation when information changes. Analyze whether new information calls for modifying plans. If so, ensure the team members understand changes in the team's assessment.

5 Create Alternatives Brainstorm & create strawmen alternatives.

Start by brainstorming solutions to the problem. After everyone has given their input, group the solutions and list the various approaches to the problem.

6 Screen Alternatives Discuss feasibility and desirability of alternatives.

Request team members review and assess the alternative approaches individually according to their agency/functional perspective. Suggest a simple rating scheme such as:

Be careful not to exclude some good alternatives. The screening process enables team members to gain insight into other member perspectives and how each function would have to change to implement a decision. This step is crucial in gaining a broad perspective on how the U.S. Government works and the need for joint/interagency cooperation.

7 Develop Decision Options Formulate choices for decision

Develop a few decision options in concrete terms. Assign someone (who has a good understanding of the team's mission) to build a few strawmen. Use concrete strawman proposals to discuss, compare, modify, and to chose from. In developing options, consider various stakeholder perspectives.

8 Assess Decision Options Compare and debate the choices

Here are some important questions to answer in assessing decision options:

When assessing decision options, use a devil's advocate or "war gaming" model to search for gaps in a proposal. In war gaming, team members "play out" a decision option against probable threats or simulated opponents, with all risks properly included. During a debate or a war game, gaps become obvious. Also, a devil's advocate or war game can uncover misunderstandings in the way various members perceive a decision option. Once a misunderstanding is identified, clarify the point (Zsambok, et al, 1992).

Ultimately, the team leader is responsible for resolving value conflicts that a team cannot resolve by internal debate. This responsibility is a unique task of a leader. The leader, as a sole person sitting in judgment, can better subordinate one value to another, mindful of the team's mission and its goals (George, 1980).

9 Develop a Recommendation and Required Actions

Integrate policy decisions and tactics. In developing your recommendation, identify required tactical moves. If substantial political resistance exists, mold your recommen-dation by using an incremental approach to make a major policy change, thereby reducing the stakes in the near term. Craft a step-by-step approach in implementing your recommendation.

SECTION 3: A Standard Meeting Agenda

Start on time:

Get to know each other:

Set the stage:

Clarify team goals:

Work out decision making issues.

Confirm the meeting agenda:

Assign member roles and functions. Functional Experts, Sub-Group Leaders, etc.

Assign admin tasks: Spokesperson, Recorder, Timekeeper, etc.

Outline the team's conceptual framework and process plan:


Get Started: Go to the first step on your agenda.

Make Assignments: Issue task to team members. Require inputs within three to five days so things don't go cold.

Evaluate Team Processes:

SECTION 4: Ground Rules for Team Members 

1. Promptness: Team meetings are sacred. We start on time. Come prepared to participate and contribute to the team.

2. Team Goals: Understand the team's goals. When not clear, seek clarification at the outset, rather than waste time pursuing vague objectives. Do not begin working without good direction.

3. Member Roles: Understand your role and function on the team. Identify other team member roles and functions. Understand the interrelated nature of roles and functions. Integrate your work with that of others.

4. Member Contributions: Contribute to team success by participating actively in execution of assigned roles. Watch for disengaged members and try to bring them back into the team. Do not continue without attempting to improve the situation.

5. Teamwork: Work as a team. Step outside your role to help teammates. Understand it is not enough for you just to help others--learn what caused the problem. There are several reasons for the need to help--an uneven distribution of workload, or an unwise employment of a member's expertise.

6. Debate the Issues: Everybody engages in reflective debate.

7. Personal Conduct: Adhere to norms for proper conduct in debate:

8. Open Discussions: Speak your mind. But, do it in a way that does not jeopardize team unity. Avoid becoming emotional, and reverting to lingering rivalries.

9. Self -correct: Call "time out" to correct processes.

10. Team Evaluations: Take time to look at team processes. Be prepared to present your evaluation at the end of each session.

SECTION 5: Tactics for Dealing With Differences Among Team Members (Yates 1987)

1. Establish a sense of shared mission. An obvious, but critical task that provides a sense of self, fosters cooperation, controls fragmentation, and establishes member equity and contains defensiveness.

2. Create incentives to act. Deadlines, assigned responsibilities, and a structured process encourage all members to act and assume responsibility for team success. Time is money-produce something tangible and get it on the street.

3. Track evolution of problems and policy decisions. Tough problems trace a twisting course as they unfold. This influences the team's intuition about how policy has taken shape, how the problem evolved to its present state, and how organizations have responded.

4. Understand the stakeholders. Understand both personality traits and bureaucratic interests of the stakeholders. Team leaders of joint/interagency team's need to get an accurate view of how various stakeholders will react to team activities.

5. Deal with extremes and the middle. There is a tendency for extreme, strident voices to dominate debate. Team leaders need to control strident voices and give the silent middle a secure opportunity to present their temperate views. Moderate views often reduce conflict.

6. Search for common ground and a shared vision of the future. Most teams have a set of common needs, or "common ground," that should be identified and expanded. The search relies on open discussion, discovery of common needs, and agreement on objectives.

7. Address winning issues first. Begin debate on issues that can be easily resolved. This forms a habit of successful conflict resolution within the team. It reemphasizes that team success means working together in forging consensus.

8. Take decisive action by using an incremental approach. When intense conflict and resistance exist, a practical approach is to employ a step-by-step strategy in solving the problem. Bold decisions, implemented incrementally, gain headway while reducing tension.

9. Build a few "strawman" proposals in concrete terms. To improve reflective debate and focus discussions on tangible issues, assign someone to build a few proposals. Teams work exceptionally well when they have strawman proposals to discuss, compare, and modify.

10. Attend to the needs of the implementers. Nothing gets done unless the supervisor makes it so. Pay attention to the problems your decisions pose for those who must implement higher-level directives.

SECTION 6: Tactics to Accelerate the Decision Making Process-Fast Teams

1. Track real time information. Fast teams track real time information on the environment and current operations to develop an intuitive and deep grasp of the strategic situation. Fast teams focus on today's critical concerns and current organizational operations to learn what's going on and what works.

2. Build multiple, simultaneous alternatives. During the decision process, fast teams immediately begin to build alternatives, using the team's understanding of the situation and diversity of experience. They include options that may not have widespread support, and rely on comparisons in debate to sharpen their preferences.

3. Rely on the advice of an experienced counselor. Fast teams seek outside advice of an experienced, usually older, counselor to act as a sounding board for ideas or to provide insight into a wide variety of issues. They are selective in choosing an advisor who is respected by his or her colleagues.

4. Try for consensus, but don't delay deciding. When it's time to decide, fast teams use a two-step procedure called "consensus with qualification." They debate the issue and attempt to forge a consensus. If a consensus does not emerge after everyone has had their say, the leader makes a choice, guided by input from the team. All may not agree with the decision, but everyone has a voice in the process.

5 Integrate policy decisions and tactics. Fast teams integrate their decisions with other policy decisions. In deliberations of strategic options, they briefly discuss required tactical moves in a "quick and dirty" fashion. Then, they refine options as necessary. Fast teams are able to better implement decisions because they prevent many of the headaches resulting from disconnected tactics.


The practice of decision making in teams, and the selection of a consensus process seems required by the environment where strategic leaders toil. First, the notion of VUCA suggests that it is virtually impossible for a single individual to be able to provide a best course of action; issues are simply too complex, the interest groups too varied, and the implications too hidden for traditional decision making. Secondly, teams are the fundamental building blocks that represent the decision making infrastructure in large, complex organizations characterized by: differences in values, ethics, morals, and culture; the globalization of the economy; and, for the military, the absence of a well-defined military threat. In such a fluid, information-laden, fast-paced environment, the varied team processes, systems, tactics, and techniques available are tools that a skillful strategic leader can use in the pursuit of critical decisions affecting national security.

In addition, systems such as GroupWare offer new ways of making decisions electronically by allowing brainstorming techniques to be applied on line in classrooms, office spaces, or labs. The leader is able to design an electronic meeting, and the participants are able to suggest ideas, rank them, vote on them, and reach consensus in an electronic environment that also permits discussion and human interaction. The conjunction of such systems, with video teleconferencing, can eliminate the need for costs and delays associated with travel.

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