We can use buzzwords to describe our leadership style and inject best practices into our routine to buttress said style. Yet, it is during the exceptions — challenging issues, difficult decisions, or other proverbial forks in the road — that the true nature of our leadership is tested and exposed.

Here are a few ways deciding between two justifiable options can define our style in ways we may not realize.


Harvard Business Review case studies are excellent tools for illustrating the options associated with specific issues like whether to sell on Amazon. They are also, however, great examples of leadership decision-making processes that define our style. In other words, they tell the story not only of what to do, but also how, why, and the implications of doing it.

The Amazon case study presented the fictitious leader two viable options. Some leaders reading the case would instantly have embraced the more conservative approach while leaders in another camp may have jumped clearly to the opposite approach.

Both paths provide rational choices that could be justified should they fail and owned should they succeed. Both also provide leaders with the opportunity to reinforce their chosen style.

However, decisions are rarely as simple as I am risk-averse, therefore my choice is clear. Further, not everyone falls into one or the other camp.

Stuck in the middle with you

Internal and external factors can step up to help justify the choice we make and define or further refine our style. For example, if we would normally embrace risk but the company is going through another high-risk venture and cannot afford to have its attention or risk appetite consumed in this manner, we may make what appears to be a one-off decision to be more conservative.

Similarly, we may be enjoying a place of relative stability, success and an abundance of mental bandwidth which affords us the opportunity to devote time and energy to the riskier decision. In both cases, again, we could justify in retrospect the decision and rationalize the choice to support our leadership style.

For example, consider the risk-embracing executive who making an exception to his chosen ethos, takes the conservative path because of his read of the landscape only to be proven wrong later. He can still support his claim to be a leader who embraces risk, as this error only proves his point.

Two Princes

Does that mean that the ability to spin or rationalize any decision is the key to leadership success when facing two justifiable options? Partially. Consistency of approach and clarity around that approach are also important.

For example, as a leader of an innovative startup, by necessity we may claim to be agile in our thinking and actions.

Thus, whatever decision we make, if it is consistent with this approach, will be understandable to our staff and stakeholders and justifiable (almost regardless) of the results. The key in this case, is to define our style around process instead of style descriptors like risk-averse.

The bottom line is that defining ourselves as leaders happens via judgment of our actions and the subsequent results. The clearer we are on how we approach decision-making and the way that process is conveyed, the better positioned we are to take decisive, consistent action that justifies our choices and broadcasts our chosen style.