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The Duality of Choice: How leaders make hard decisions

Posted on September 18, 2016 at 7:35 PM

Throughout our day we are constantly reminded of the duality of life. From physical forces such as north and south on a magnet to symbolic representations such as the symbol ying and yang. Even our emotions are described to us as opposites, love and hate, happy and sad. Leadership is no different. Leaders are constantly challenged by the duality of life. Every day leaders are presented with challenging decisions regarding the constant battle between expansion and sustainment.

 Effective leaders are those that understand there is a balancing act going on behind stage. Just as it is sometimes necessary to pull something closer, other times it can be equally as valuable to push things away. When presented with the choice to push or pull, leaders must use a systematic reasoning process to make their choice. Although intuition has its place, by learning a proper decision making process, it allows two things. First, it gives leaders a straight forward method to make their choice and second after using the method for some time, intuition will begin utilizing the process as second nature when split second decisions are necessary.


Decision making goes hand in hand with problem solving. Whereas problem solving involves identifying the problem and solving it; these problems usually consisting of unknowns or inductive reasoning. (See Chris’ Five Steps to Accurate Problem Solving). Decision making is choosing the best scenario for a given situation, these scenarios involve more deductive reasoning. Think of problem solving as identifying the unknown and decision making as choosing the best known.


When faced with a decision, I find it valuable to proceed through the following steps:


  1. Gather all known information.
  2. Seek additional outside information.
  3. Compile all information.
  4. Develop multiple scenarios.
  5. Simulate and analyze scenarios.
  6. Choose the best scenario.


The first step in the decision making process is gathering all known information. This is most easily done by sitting with a pen and paper and writing everything you know about the decision topic. I prefer pen and paper over a laptop or phone app because it is easier to circle hot topics, link correlating topics, draw and image, and see an overall picture or map of how the information is related.


Once everything you know about the topic is gathered, it is time to search for additional outside information. Gathering outside information is important because it allows you to see other perspectives on the topic. By speaking with domain experts, reading peer-reviewed literature, and viewing professional videos such as TED Talks (make sure videos come from a reliable source) it gives you insight into areas you may not have thought to examine or had any previous interest.

After gathering outside information, it is time to compile all of your information in an organized database. The structure of the database depends on you and what you are deciding upon. It is more important the data is formalized in a manner you find helpful than to follow a standardized structure.


The fourth step is developing multiple scenarios based upon all the gathered information. This step is important because we as humans have the tendency to see the world through a specific lens based upon our past experiences and beliefs. By developing multiple scenarios, is forces us to create options we would not regularly see.

Upon creating the options, we must simulate the scenarios and analyze the possible outcomes. Sometimes simulations can be done with models or computers and other times they must be done in our minds, but regardless a simulation of all the different scenarios must be played out and analyzed for strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (S.W.O.T. analysis) to determine which one best suits the given situation.

Finally, the best scenario has to be chosen and acted upon. Remember, when choosing and acting upon a scenario, it is better to act upon a good plan today than a perfect plan tomorrow. Perhaps one scenario will solve all of your team’s problems, but the resources and time it will take to accomplish is way beyond acceptable. If that is the case, that scenario is not the best choice. The scenario that can be acted upon in an appropriate and effective timeline is the best scenario even if it doesn’t solve every last problem.


By going through each of these decision making steps, it ensures a clearly thought out plan is being employed. Once a decision is made, it can lead to the next decision. This is referred to as decision mapping. Decision mapping is when A causes B and the resulting B leads to the ability for C to happen which allows for D to occur. Chess is a prime example of decision mapping. Chess Masters plan out future moves based upon the most likely scenarios that will play out prior to that move. They will even map out moves for alternate scenarios that may play out.


When planning a bouldering route (rock climbing without gear that originated on boulders). Climbers don’t head up and grab on to whatever spot their hand lands on. They take into account their fitness, the type of rock, recent and current weather, angles, and many other factors before each move. They use decision mapping to play out different routes in their head before attempting them then choose they best route and best approach to solve the puzzle. They follow a systematic decision making process overtime they approach that rock.


By following a formal decision making process such as the one mentioned above, it provides you as a leader with a method for making rational decisions opposed to emotional decisions. Choices will always be presented to leaders and by following the above decision making process, you can be confident in the decision you make.


Another duality of life is the constant struggle of expansion and sustainment. Sun Tzu the infamous ancient Chinese General in his famous writing The Art of War mentioned this when he spoke of setting up a strong defense before engaging in offensive. Sun Tzu believed you must fortify your current position before attempting to gain new territory because it is worse to lose what you have already won than possibly gaining more. Leaders should always secure their resources prior to attempting to gain additional resources. With this said, leaders must have a solid understanding of expansion and sustainment, meaning when it is best to focus on strengthening what you already possess (sustainment) and when it is best to gain new territory (expansion).

Expansion and sustainment is a balancing act. Understanding your situation is how you understand which move to make. The key is remembering to safeguard what you possess and ensure you have a surplus of resources prior to spending resources attempting to further your reach. People fail when they attempt to do everything at once. They spread themselves too thin, rather than focusing on excellence in one area, achieving excellence, setting up a solid plan for sustainment, then expanding to the next area.

Deciding when to expand or sustain is a principal decision leaders constantly undergo. It are the small decisions leaders make when decision mapping that results in better outcomes concerning expansion or sustainment.


With this in mind, leaders have to understand society always presents dualities. One group of people will feel one way and another will feel differently. It’s the way societies grow. In the United States we are torn between freedom and equality. We all believe in freedom and equality but freedom grants us the ability to be different and equality means all the same. There are always two options (even when you think you don’t, remember doing nothing is an option) it’s important to realize this and weigh every decision rationally with a core belief that the little decisions we make today dictate the large choices they are faced with tomorrow.

Stay active, 



Categories: Coaching Theory

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