Decisive Moments

The French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is widely considered the father of photojournalism, coined the phrase “the decisive moment.” This moment occurs when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation. This is not only true in superb photography but also in exceptional leadership. There are those decisive moments when the beliefs and psychological makeup of leaders are matched against difficult, gut-wrenching, and often consequential situations. It is at these moments that the legacy and impact of leaders come through. It is then that followers really get to know the leader and decide whether they will accept being led by them. Simply put, they are defining moments.

This is why there are many followers and managers but only a few who can truly occupy the leadership space. It is not enough to have beliefs, aspirations, photo ops, speeches, blogs, etc. These beliefs are impacting and dynamic if they are exhibited in decisions and actions. Every politician espouses a belief of serving his or her country. However, there are only a few like the senator from Alaska, Susan Malinowski, and the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, that actually vocalize and vote their beliefs. The decisions made during decisive moments should be deeply personal and closely related to the values and beliefs of the leader. Once made and carried out, they set in motion precedents, legacies, and ripple effects that affect the lives and well beings of many. Here are some powerful examples of those that responded to these moments as leaders should and others who did not.

Decisive moment—Christi Shaw voluntarily stepped away from a high profile job at Novartis as President and US Country Head of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation. Here is how the Fortune article of May 2016 by Eileen Daspen1 described it: 

“In April, Swiss pharma giant Novartis made an unexpected announcement. Christi Shaw, the company’s U.S. country head and president, was stepping down ‘for personal and family reasons.’

That phrase is often code for internal corporate strife, personnel clashes, or failure to perform. But in Shaw’s case, the explanation was as personal and familial as it gets. Her older sister, Sherry, 51, was suffering from multiple myeloma, or bone marrow cancer. Though Sherry’s condition had deteriorated since her 2013 diagnosis, in early April she had been accepted into a promising clinical study. A key criterion for admission was that she have a full-time caretaker during the three-month trial.

For Shaw, 49, one of the top-ranking women in the pharma industry, the decision to take on that caretaker role was an easy one. She deliberated just two days before submitting her resignation. What surprised her was the disbelief she encountered from friends, co-workers, and colleagues in the industry.”

For many at the time that may have been an unthinkable option. After all they may have thought “I have given my all to get to this position.  I love my sister and will find other ways including financial means to help.  But not this. I simply cannot walk away from my career.”

In the course of my career which now spans over 40 years I have either been employed or consultant for numerous life sciences organizations, including most if not all of the major ones. Almost all of them have values, mission statements, and care and dedication to patients as the North Star and the guiding light for all of their decisions. However, followers and the outside world judge leaders by their actions not their espoused beliefs. Legacies are made during these decisive moments. If a leader espouses care for patients as his or her core belief, does it not follow, under the circumstances that Christi found herself in, that they make a similar decision?  Does care of a patient in need not start with one’s own decisions and behaviors with close family? Hence Christi’s surprise to the reaction of others and how many leaders are still struggling with authentic leadership.  And of course, as karma would have it, Christi not only landed on her feet, but she landed in a big way with her previous employer Eli Lilly as Senior VP & President of Lilly Bio-Medicines. But even more importantly, to this day when I visit Novartis and talk to her former colleagues, the legacy of her decision still lives on and inspires many. She has opened up a window of courage, authenticity, and value-based leadership that inspires and motivates others to translate into their own lives. People are inspired by example.

Please view this video on Christie and ask yourself whether you feel she is authentic regarding her value to serve the patient.

Decisive Moment—My father, who built much of the education infrastructure in Iran during the Shah’s regime, was told to take bribes from foreign contractors so that the flow of future bribes to others in power was not affected. He dedicated his life to service and country. He did not hesitate. He refused, lost his job, was forced to take a job in the embassy in Washington to get him out of the way. He never regretted his decision. To this day his students, who are now top engineers and scientists in organizations such as Google, NASA, and the United Nations, get together to celebrate his life and legacy.

Decisive Moment—Nelson Mandela, after 27 years of prison at the hands of the Afrikaans, invited them in to form a rainbow coalition. He disenfranchised his wife, Winnie, who stood by him all those years but was found guilty of misusing her power.  He did so because at the highest level he served South Africa.

Decisive Moment—The leaders at Volkswagen knowingly decided to support technology to fool the emission standards tests in order to sell more vehicles.

Decisive Moment—The leaders at Wells Fargo encouraged sales and customer service representatives to practice an aggressive culture which resulted in them creating:

  • Deposit accounts and transferring funds without customer authorization, sometimes resulting in insufficient funds fees for customers
  • Credit card accounts in costumers’ names without their knowledge or consent. Customers were hit with annual fees, in addition to finance and interest charges and late fees for some consumers
  • Debit cards and PINs for customers, without their consent
  • Phony email addresses to enroll consumers in online banking services

Decisive Moment—The leaders of various life science organizations, prescribing doctors, and pharmacists aggressively oversupplying opioids to trusting patients in severe pain causing large scale addictions, psychological distress, and in many cases suicides

The central thesis in the bestselling book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence by Dacher Keltner2 is that power is given and not taken and in the long term it is bestowed by followers to those who do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Having worked with numerous leaders I now believe that this journey is defined by decisive moments when constituencies determine whether the decisions and actions of their leaders are value-based, authentic, courageous, and as Keltner so ably illustrates, in the best interest of the people he is or she is serving.

  1. Daspin E. (2016, May 31) The Sad and Inspiring Reason This top Novartis Exec Stepped Down. Retrieved from
  2. Keltner D. (2016) The Power of Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin Random House.

Questions for Online Conversation

  • Do you recall your decisive moments?
  • If so, how are your decisions and actions aligned with your values and beliefs?
  • What lessons did you learn? How will you practice them in the future?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

2 Responses to Decisive Moments

  1. Kathi Love says:

    Kaveh – You have written another blog post that has caused me to reexamine my own defining moments in leadership. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: If Not You, Then Who? | The Leadership Crescendo

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