How CEOs Make Complex Decisions—Even When They Don’t Have All the Intel

Viewed in Russell Reynolds

With dozens of offices in over two dozen countries, it is fair to say that management consulting firm Russell Reynolds, founded in 1969, interacts with a vast number of chief executive officers.

The management consulting behemoth observes in this article, authored by five Russell Reynolds professionals, that the demands on today’s CEO are both vast and quickly evolving.

Complex decisions

Decisions that once were merely difficult are even more so, filled with new complexities, broad-ranging consequences, and must be made without the definitional decision-making playbooks that once facilitated executive decisions.

Unprecedented scrutiny

Making CEO decision-making even more complex, CEOs today are under unprecedented levels of scrutiny. “CEOs are under the microscope, with shareholders, customers, communities, and regulators scrutinizing ever decision,” this Russell Reynolds article reports.

No straight answer

Further complicating matters, it is exceedingly rare for CEOs to make decisions of any sort that will be met with 100 percent approval.  “No answer is ever 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong,” these Russell Reynolds professionals argue.

These facts are creating a new decision-making paradigm for chief executives that emphasize at least three new helpful attributes that CEOs should embrace:

      1.) Stay open to new ideas and solutions;

      2.) Admit you don’t have all the answers; and

      3.) Tune into emotions.

These three attributes, in turn, should drive at least four CEO action items. 

Avoid groupthink

First, avoid groupthink. An effective leadership team is not one that mimics a CEOs attributes, values, and perspectives but one that compliments them with a team that can collectively look at challenges from every important– and often times very differing–perspectives.


Second, today’s chief executive must also be a collaborator. That collaboration starts with every chief executive building a strongly collaborative relationship with the board’s chairperson, who chief executives should see as a “partner and ally” and a soundboard for complex decisions.

Emotion intelligence

Third, chief executives cannot afford to be oblivious to the emotional impact of decisions. Emotional intelligence is necessary and chief executives should be continually developing it as a key attribute that can help in guiding organizations and the complex decisions they are paid to make.

Spot your weak points

Fourth and finally, chief executives need a keen sense of self-awareness, particularly as it relates to their own weak points—and the human condition is such that every chief executive has one or more.

The chief executive who is forthright in acknowledging these weak points and addressing them pro-actively by augmenting them with the input and assistance of others is not a weak leader; he or she is an even more effective and stronger leader.


Humility in 21st century organizational leadership is strength as CEOs guide organizations through complex decisions in an era filled with challenges that are proving complex, scrutinized, and often unprecedented.

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