The Habit of Making Great Decisions – Developing the Virtue of Prudence

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Leaders are required to make many decisions to enable their vision and mission to move forward. Sometimes these decisions can be simple and straightforward and at other times they may be quite complex and difficult. In all cases, leaders want to be able to make high quality decisions in a timely fashion. To do this well, it is important to cultivate the virtue of prudence.

At its simplest, prudence can be understood as the habit of making right decisions. The Catholic Catechism describes prudence as “the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it.” (CCC 1835)

Virtuous Leadership author, Alex Havard, notes that: “Prudence enables leaders to perceive situations in all their complexity (or simplicity, as the case may be) and make decisions in accordance with this perception. Prudent decision making basically consists of two things: deliberation and decision. Deliberation is directed towards reality, whereas decision has to do with will and action.”

Certainly every leader wants to be able to improve their ability to deliberate and make high quality decisions, in order to become a more prudent leader. Here are a few practical suggestions on how to develop this virtue:

Developing Deliberation:

  1. Gather Data – Whatever decision you are considering, there is going to be relevant information that will help inform it. This data might be historical, financial, social, demographic, philosophical, political, etc. Ask yourself, ‘what information would be helpful and useful to enable me to understand all the relevant aspects of this decision?’
  2. Ask Others for their Opinions – Consulting others about a decision can help tremendously. It can be valuable to get feedback from those who the decision will directly impact. It can also be helpful to consult others who, although not impacted or affected by the decision, are wise and can contribute insight. Additionally, it can be useful to consult others who have been in a similar situation, to learn from their experience both in success and in failure. 
  3. Weigh Options – Finally, with all the relevant information and opinions, it is important to weigh all the options that are available. This could take the classic form of a Pros/Cons list for each alternative or could involve ranking them based on a specific set of criteria or goals. After weighing the options it might be apparent that further data or consultation is needed, or perhaps a new creative option might emerge that had not previously been considered.

Developing Decision:

  1. Just Decide – After weighing the options, the best choice might be completely apparent or may remain unclear, but at some point the best possible decision needs to be made. Many times there is no perfect decision; it’s just a matter of choosing one option and moving forward. Leaders can practice this by making quick decisions on things that don’t have significant consequences. For example, give yourself 30 seconds to review the menu and decide what you will order when you are at a restaurant.
  2. Execute and Iterate – After making the decision it is important for leaders to begin to act on it as quickly as is appropriate. Much can be said about the discipline of execution (you can read more here), but the first step is always to outline an action plan to implement the decision. This may be quite simple or elaborate depending on the matter under consideration, but there should be some immediate action(s), in order to get things moving forward. Leaders also should take care to consider the potential to iterate or make minor adjustments as the implementation begins and as initial results of the decision become apparent.
  3. Autopsy Without Blame – Finally, after the decisions have been made, implemented, and shown to result in success or failure (or a combination of both), it is of great value to take some time to evaluate. The purpose of this is not to assign blame for failure or make assumptions about the actual factors that lead to success, but rather to elevate specifically the process of deliberation and the aspects of decision-making that could be improved (if needed) or leveraged positively even further. This step of evaluation can significantly help a leader grow in the virtue of prudence, learning lessons and practicing the best habits of decision making.

Prudence is foundational for good leadership. It is known as the “mother of all virtues” because a prudent and wise person can make decisions that help them to grow in other virtuous habits like courage, self-mastery, justice, humility, and greatness. The practical suggestions above can help you to grow in this virtue.

How would being more prudent build your personal leadership character?

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