Close this search box.
Close this search box.

For CEOs, Safe Decisions Aren’t Always Safe

While good decisions measure and manage risk, they are rarely risk free. CEOs who look for risk free decisions do little more than cede opportunity to others. The best chief executives manage opportunity first - and risk second.

News Flash: safe decisions rarely are. The best chief executives possess the courage to not only seek out the right decision, but they also understand the importance of giving others permission to do the same. We need CEOs who want others to do better and be better. What we don’t need is more CEOs who hide in safe harbors. If you sit in the big chair, you don’t get paid to make safe decisions; you get paid to make the right decision.

You can spot a struggling (and potentially failing) CEO a mile off by simply looking at the types of decisions they make. Not surprisingly, weak CEOs pander to public opinion, they manage the routine rather than the extraordinary, and they worry more about being right than achieving the right outcome. Poorly performing chief executives seek the safe decision rather than the courageous decision.

It’s also important to understand safe decisions are not universally synonymous with smart decisions. In fact, most times the safe decision is a rationalization or justification that attempts to provide cover for what is knowingly a less than optimal choice.  Have you ever noticed how weak CEOs will often opt for the easy decision, while the best chief executives have learned to make the tough decisions look easy?

CEOs whose default setting is to “play it safe” do not impress me. Many will read the aforementioned statement as being unduly harsh – therein lies the problem. Organizations have incubated a generation of leaders who believe their job is to make safe decisions, not to rock the boat, and to protect people’s feelings, when those leaders rise the office of chief executive their default settings for risk aversion become magnified. A CEO’s job is to make good decisions regardless of how people feel about it.

I’m not suggesting decisions be made in callous fashion or with reckless abandon, but neither do I believe every decision needs to be hedged, every expectation needs to be lowered, or every constituency needs to be pandered to.  While good decisions measure and manage risk, they are rarely risk free.  CEOs who look for risk free decisions do little more than cede opportunity to others. The best chief executives manage opportunity first – and risk second.

Following are five types of decisions that many see as the safe decision – savvy CEOs understand they’re anything but safe:

  1. The Politically Correct Decision: Smart CEOs don’t seek to be politically correct – they seek to be correct. Being politically correct rarely solves problems – it exacerbates them. Real change, not the politically correct version, is built upon seeking the truth, and not some watered-down version thereof. The first step in solving problems is to deal in whole truths, not untruths or partial truths.


  1. The Talent Decision: I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve witnessed organizations make the safe hire instead of the right hire.  The reason companies make bad hires is they compromise, they settle, they play it safe – they don’t hire thebest personfor the job. Compromise has its place in business, but it has no role in the acquisition of talent.  Leaders too often focus on the “nice to haves” instead of the “must haves.” They allow themselves to be distracted by disparate, insignificant factors, rather than holding out for the best person for the job. My definition of irony: when CEOs complain about their talent. I’ve always believed leaders deserve the teams they build. Here’s the thing – when leaders make a bad hire they have no one to blame but themselves. If you don’t believe you can hire world-class talent, don’t be surprised when others begin to share your opinion.


  1. The Values Decision: Rewarding performance over values might seem to be safe or smart, but it is neither. Organizations have core values for a reason – to give them a true north. Organizational values exist to align interests, actions, and direction. Ultimately they exist to create a hi-trust environment where exceptional performance is the rule and not the exception. When leaders make decisions that contradict core values there is a steep price to pay – a loss of trust. When a CEO talks about values, but fails to act on or defend them, the entire enterprise is placed at risk. The best CEOs have a zero tolerance policy for actions and/or decisions that constitute a violation of corporate values.


  1. The Managed Decision: Many CEOs believe if they can manage enough aspects of a decision then it will be safe to make. When decisions are over-managed they tend to be under-effective. CEOs need to stop managing decisions and just make them. I’ve always said, “managing expectations is gamesmanship – aligning them is leadership.” Smart CEOs offer a compass they don’t draw the map. Think guidelines – not rules. Think surrender – not control. Build the right team and have the confidence to allow decisions to be made closet to the point of impact.


  1. The No Decision: While it may seem safe to not make a decision, it’s probably not. The reality is, not making a decision is still a decision – it’s usually just not the right decision. Avoiding a decision doesn’t mean you’ll avoid the issue; you’ll likely just exacerbate it.  Great CEOs don’t find safety by sticking their head in the sand; they find safety in consistently making good decisions. However the greatest security is found to teaching others to make great decisions and then granting them the responsibility and authority to make them.

The best CEOs don’t play it safe, they don’t look the other way when something is wrong, and they don’t compromise on values. They do the right thing. Thoughts?


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.