Decision making principles

Principles and examples of decision making principles

By Fred Smith

One of the pitfalls for good character decision making is "competitiveness." I believe in healthy competition in business and athletics, but not in spiritual service. We Baptists joke about our pattern of growth, which is to fight, split, and compete, all the time talking of how God is blessing us as we outdo our competition.

While I have found much to differ on with the brilliant Harvard professor Dr. Harvey Cox, I wholeheartedly agree with his observation: "Christ united the church and man divided it." I wish I could believe all differences among religious leaders were an effort to purify the faith, but I would have to check my intellectual integrity at the door to believe it. Most strong leaders have strong egos, and ego satisfaction is a character fault in Christian work.

It is always good to remind myself that Christian leadership is flawed. Some flaws show more than others and in different ways. After reading Oswald Chambers, I try not to be surprised at sin in any of its forms—disappointed, yes, surprised, no.

Once I was playing golf with a well-known Christian leader. Riding together as partners, we came to his ball and found it fairly deep in the rough. He looked across the fairway and saw that the others were not looking, so he kicked his ball out to the edge of the fairway. Shortly before that, he had been lecturing me about the inerrancy of Scripture, fearing I was not thrilled with the divisions the argument was causing. Seeing him kick his ball out of the rough weakened his theological authenticity.

Another hindrance to good decision making is the failure to admit mistakes. A friend went through a terrible experience when he served on a board that allowed itself to be bullied out of holding an honest position. The financial pressure became too great. Repeatedly some of the board members would surreptitiously bring up the possibility of reversing an action they had taken, without stirring the hostility of the opposition. My friend asked, "Why don't we just say that we were wrong and acted hastily without proper consideration, and now we're going to reverse our decision?"

He said, "That sent them into fits of denial."

In finances we learn to take a loss as soon as possible— cut the loss, don't throw good money after bad; only obsessive gamblers do that. By the same logic, leaders must name and claim mistakes as soon as possible. Minimize the loss, and start remedial actions immediately.

Too often we will protect an individual at the expense of the organization. Another area of Christian character applies to "references." I have found asking for character references among the Christian community to be useless. Too often we rationalize our tolerance and compassion or our fear of making enemies. Why not tell the truth? If we know a person has character flaws, why not protect the organization that is inquiring? If we prefer not to talk, then say so. Character requires that we not give someone a reference he or she does not deserve.

Hiring and promotion decisions should not be based on politics. Generally we see a person's strengths first and experience his or her weaknesses later. Hiring and promoting with integrity means acting according to record and gifts, not according to politics, relations, or influence.

A leader's first question should be, "How will this appointment help the organization to fulfill its mission?" not "Will the person vote my way?"

I originally listed "lying" as one of the flaws in character decision-making. However, I know few Christian leaders who actually intend to lie. Once I was speaking at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton to a large group of ministers. I asked them why, on a Monday morning at one of their ministerial meetings, they were not more truthful with each other. It seemed that all who spoke were claiming the blessing of God and a great outpouring of the Spirit. As I got to know some of these men, some were struggling to maintain their zeal and balance. At the close of the session, a young pastor of a small church chided me by saying, "Fred, you're suggesting we commit professional suicide. If we told each other the truth, we'd be dead."

Another twisting of the truth is when a preacher says, "God told me" as persuasion. Leaders must have integrity of vocabulary, including avoiding pious babble not understood by nonbelievers and not believed by many believers. In my long experience with Christian organizations, I have seen too many "special visions from God" play out in less than divine ways. Some have failed miserably. One business executive publicly bragged that God ran his business, and later it went into bankruptcy. I think such leaders are basically sincere, but rather than hearing God's voice, they hear an echo of their own desire voiced to God. My experience has been that God operates in an orderly fashion attested to by more than just one person.

I asked a great man of God from the East how Christians in that part of the world determine God's will. He said, "The first who has the impression shares it with others. We pray and watch circumstances. If favorable circumstances start to coalesce, we pray more and wait until we are unified in spirit. Then we start, knowing that if it is not his will, he will impress us to stop it. We remain open to stop."