• Allan J. Mucerino


Updated: Jun 22, 2019

Leaders are paid to make decisions. It’s an essential function of leadership. Part 1 of a series on leadership and the art of decision-making

Why and how leaders make decisions has long captured the interest and imagination of theorists who have offered normative and descriptive explanations of the decision-making process. In simplistic terms, decision-makers range on a continuum from telling people what to do on one end of the spectrum to delegating the authority on the other end. Decisions are either made by the leader or influenced by the leader to varying degrees. Regardless of the process, procedures and strategies to guide the decision-making help organizations avoid crisis decision-making and mitigate the effect of time.

Linear or circular flow patterns constitute most decision-making models. The rational model consists of defining the problem, analyzing it, developing alternative solutions, deciding, and finally operationalizing. The quality of decision-making is dependent on the level of expertise deployed at each step of the process. One misstep and the process is compromised. For example, problems are regularly misdiagnosed. What appears to be a problem may very well be symptomatic of a more complex issue. A well-developed, rich base of knowledge about the internal and external forces that shape the culture of an organization provides the lens to view the problem in a larger context. Leaders with a narrow lens make superficial decisions. They may even worsen a problem. Leaders with too wide a lens struggle to make decisions at all. Highly skilled leaders initiate the analysis phase of the decision-making process while defining the problem, thus framing the problem with the appropriate lens.

Examples of failing to launch is particularly problematic related to the bane of many school district’s existence during the last decade: declining enrollment. Roughly half of the state’s nearly 1,000 districts experienced enrollment losses since the inception of the LCFF in 2013. Many large districts lost significant numbers of students since 2013. In Los Angeles County, for instance, 61 of 79 districts experienced enrollment declines. Los Angeles Unified lost 34,000 students (a 5% decline). Long Beach Unified lost 7,600 students (9%). In addition, seven districts with more than 10,000 students lost between 10% and 15% of enrollment. For a district of 10,000 students, losing 10% of their enrollment translates into 1,000 fewer students, about the size of a typical middle school or two elementary schools. Montebello Unified, in Los Angeles County, saw a dramatic 13% decline, losing more than 4,000 students in the last five years. The district I led from 2015-2018, also in Los Angeles County, had lost nearly a third of its enrollment during a 15-year period prior to my tenure.

While there is no easy solution to the complex problem of declining enrollment, a systematic approach to addressing the problem is a necessity, given the consequence of failing to adapt to it. The long-term implications of declining enrollment are far reaching and become slippery slopes in this era of consumer-driven education, particularly in Los Angeles County and the entire Southern California region, where choice is abundant. As the economic expansion enters unprecedented lengths, California is likely to face an economic downturn in the near future, given the underlying economic realities of income inequality and the quality of jobs that will shape California’s future. Governor Newsom has acknowledged that income disparities among millions of California families are at a level not seen since the 1970s. Full-time employment is not enough to satisfy the basic needs of families given the cost of living.

The boom, bust, and recovery cycle typically widens disparities and impacts the most vulnerable of school districts. Where I am currently employed, payrolls have dropped significantly in the county in the past five years while the employment current rate of 4.1% continues to rise. That leads to further erosion as families seek employment elsewhere. Using a rational model of decision-making, district leaders study demographic data while examining internal and external forces that may be driving decisions among parents choosing to leave the school district, while still living in the community. Charter schools, District of Choice schools, and private schools are all options in a consumer-driven education marketplace. Districts that fail to study declining enrollment through both an economic and sociopolitical lens fail to provide their district with a realistic view, and consequently suffer as a result of not taking action until it’s too late to reverse the impact of the exodus.

The rational model of decision-making is characterized by logic: it’s systematic and sequential. However, the way leaders think and behave is not always rational. Plus, the organizational environment limits and shapes leader behavior. Optimal decisions aren’t always possible under all circumstances and in all situations. Many districts are in denial or simply fail to address the reality of their condition (Read about the Stockdale paradox in a recent blog here). Herbert Simon famously coined the term “satisficing” in the 1960s to describe a decision-making process that oversimplified the issues. He found that in certain environments administrators sought decisions that were satisfactory, or “good enough” given the conditions. I contend that superintendents are reluctant to go down the path of closure and reconstruction, both of which lead to short shelf lives for district leaders. Simon’s conceptualization has merit in today’s litigious environment given the consequences of poor decision-making.

Rational decision-making serves school districts well in relation to routine decisions that procedurally may be programmed to optimize the decision, such as curriculum and textbook adoptions, or hiring decisions. Programmed decisions are not made under pressure and thus can be consistent and aligned to an organization’s mission and purpose. Checks and balances ensure a participatory and democratic process. The management element of leadership is concerned with implementing programmed decision-making processes that ensure adopted standards required by policies and law are institutionalized. Consistency and best practices are hallmarks of successful school districts. But most decisions education leaders have to make cannot be programmed.

Leaders are paid to make nonprogrammed decisions. In many organizations, problems are deeply rooted and more or less permanent. A sociopolitical lens is necessary since a combination or interaction of social and political factors are responsible for the problems and no simple solutions will solve them. The process is fragmented and disjointed and as Lindblom described in 1959 in the most unscientific of ways, is characterized as the science of muddling through. There is no lens wide enough to fully analyze the most complex problems that exist in education leadership today. And if there were, there would not be enough time to consider all of the possible solutions, paralyzing leaders and stifling decision-making. After all, the human capacity to deal with possibilities and solutions is not limitless.

Savvy leaders understand the value of incremental change. Rational models often yield to intuitive models when the breadth of the change requires a significantly more nuanced approach. The intuitive model of decision-making is anathema to democratic leaders whose participating leadership style is committed to increasing identification with organizational goals by giving participants a voice in making significant decisions in their organization. But what if the rigorous collection and analysis of data within the scope of a participatory process reveals a decision counter to a leader’s instincts? Or, if for political reasons, a decision is made that conflicts with a leader’s “gut” and intuition? A familiar leadership conundrum is sure to follow.

Stay tuned to explore a model of decision-making that has fallen out of favor in the scientific age.

Part II: Intuitive decision-making: Going with the gut.

Editor's note: Consistent with my contention that few ideas are truly original, I choose to cite those who I believe originated the idea or theory I am referencing. Hence my referencing scholars from a bygone era in this essay . The original thought reorients my perception in a way repackaged ideas do not. Rare new ideas are far and few between but fuel my creativity.