Making great decisions

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 1 2023

One of the activities school and college leaders perform in their role each day is decision making. And quite rightly, it's often found listed as a key competency in person specifications for leadership positions. Headteacher Gareth Burton shares his top tips on making great decisions.

A quick Google search will return that humans make an eye-popping 35,000 decisions every day; this equates to a decision every 2.5 seconds. 

Clearly, many of these decisions are ones our brain makes unconsciously without much, if any, conscious input from us, the decision-maker. Perhaps more realistically, the psychology-based app, Noom, cites that we make on average 122 ‘informed’ choices every day; these are situations where we actually take time to pause and consider options before making a decision. 

But, even within these informed choices, I expect many of them are likely to be decisions of little relative importance and without significant long-term implications for us. ‘Coffee or tea?’ might be one example, or perhaps slightly more impactful, ‘Is the weather bad enough for us to call a wet break?’ 

In this article, I focus on the small number of decisions we make every day that are ‘high-impact’ decisions. The higher up the leadership ladder you climb, the more people your decision making is likely to impact on and, also, the more complex the issues. The latter is particularly true in the current education climate, which offers an uncertain and ambiguous future across a number of facets, including funding, staffing and accountability, to list just three. 

Below are the six considerations that I always reflect on before making any high-impact decision: 

Ensure that the information being used to consider a decision is accurate and valid. Be mindful of the difference between correlation and causation; just because two things are correlated, one doesn’t necessarily cause the other. In the busy world in which school and college leaders operate, there are many competing demands on our time and often as decision-makers, we rely on instinct and previous experience a little too much when, in actual fact, the reality needs to be probed further. There is certainly a role for ‘gut feeling’ and ‘previous experience’ to play in decision making, but we must be careful of confirmation bias, too. 

When studying A level maths (a long time ago), I recall learning about Type I and Type II errors. This branch of statistics concerns calculating the chance of arriving at a conclusion that something is true when it is actually false (Type I) or vice versa (Type II). Assessing the level of risk when making a decision has parallels with this; what is the risk of any given decision not being the correct one to take? This may be difficult to quantify, but an awareness of what the risk is, where the level of risk sits in the school’s or college’s approach to risk tolerance and consideration of the worst-case scenario are all key reflections to give time to. 

The late American educator and professor Randolph (‘Randy’) Pausch famously said, “Never make a decision until you have to.” So, the longer one pauses to reflect, the greater the opportunity for all relevant information to be gathered and considered, subsequently reducing the risk of ‘game-changing’ information coming to light after a decision has already been taken. However, there is a fine balance between waiting for this optimum point, and procrastination to the point of diminished returns – in short, the positive impact of the decision becoming increasingly less the longer time continues. Ironically, identifying when to decide is sometimes more important than the actual decision itself. 

Keeping stakeholders informed throughout the period of deliberation is vital. Openness and clarity are perhaps the two most important features of any communication. Be clear about what is being considered, some of the associated challenges, what is within and outside of your control and the risks that you are trying to manage by making the right decision. It’s essential to be clear from the beginning about the status of the communication: is it information sharing, formal or informal consultation or are you seeking approval? I tend to find that most people have a view on most things if they’re asked. 

Given that you may not always be seeking a view, be clear about this when making important communications. While you can’t please everyone all of the time, the path to acceptance and implementation is often much easier if relevant people have been kept informed along the way. 

Many high-impact decisions are confidential to specific groups of stakeholders throughout the deliberation period so you may be restricted to whom you can speak with about your considerations. 

That said, as far as possible, it’s a good idea to have someone at your disposal whom you trust, can retain confidentiality and who will give you an honest response. This person may be a colleague, someone working in a different school or college, a friend outside of education or, equally, a paid professional from a different employment sector, perhaps a life coach or business mentor. It’s easy to fall victim to ‘tunnel vision’ and, as school leaders, we are surrounded by other professionals who can usually add value to a problem-solving activity. 

Clearly schools and colleges do not want leaders who change their minds frequently; this would inhibit progress, be acutely frustrating and reduce the confidence that staff have in their leaders. Equally, the ability to recognise when something isn’t working as expected and adjust things, even if this means a complete U-turn, is a very useful competency of a leader. The ability to perform this adjustment with honesty and humility will require planning and finesse, but is much better in the long term than continuing with a course of action that clearly doesn’t have the intended impact. 

Life or death? 
I like to remind myself that the majority of decisions that need to be made in schools and colleges are not a matter of life or death. Clearly, there are decisions that are critically important to the future of the young people we serve and quite rightly consume a great deal of our mental capacity, but sometimes the pressure of making high-impact decisions can have a detrimental effect on the decision-making process. 

As such, keeping the life-or-death concept front of mind is often quite releasing and usually leads to better decision making, since it eradicates the associated stress of making a poor call.

Gareth Burton
Headteacher at a school in the West Midlands and ASCL Consultant

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