It was a warm summer day in the 1930’s and one of the greatest American baseball players of all time was at bat. The quiet, gentle man was Lou Gehrig, one of the best hitters ever to wear the uniform of the New York Yankees. His durability as a first baseman and consistent hitter earned him the nickname of the “Iron Horse”. During this day Gehrig would do something totally out of character. As the first pitch came at him, he swung and missed. “Strike One” bellowed the umpire. Then came the next pitch.
Again, the “Iron Horse” swung and missed. “Strike Two” intoned the umpire once again. On the third pitch Gehrig stood by and watched the ball pass by him without even an attempted swing. “Strike Three…your out!” the umpire shouted. Then something unusual happened! Lou Gehrig, one of the classiest men ever to play baseball and a solid gentleman slammed down his bat in disgust and was seen having a few words with the umpire. After the game, a shocked media reporter asked him what he was complaining to the umpire about. “Oh…I didn’t complain,” stated Gehrig. “I simply told him that I would give one thousand dollars for a chance at that last ball again!” Within this story is a powerful lesson for leaders to consider. Constructive accomplishment requires decision. For a leader to rely on chance or luck to be a deciding factor is to court disaster. Sometimes, the only risk is not taking one.
It is understandable that we should want to avoid making decisions for a number of reasons. First of all, it is often risky. Risk is defined as the possibility of suffering harm, loss or danger. We tend to be comfortable in our patterns and expectations. Often times making a decision means we must step out of our “comfort zone” into the unknown. Through past experience we know that even a slight shift in our course can have dramatic effects on what our lives will be. Secondly, leaders often make decisions while they are slightly ahead of the prevailing group or culture. It is often a lonely, thankless experience with little visible support. This situation is compounded when the leader has not taken the time and energy to build a strong consensus among others. Even on a personal level, we may avoid or delay making decisions about our family, careers or finances because of an aversion to risk and fear of failure.
But here is an important fact about decision-making and risk. We will frequently come to a crossroads in life or business where an important decision mustbe made. We have a choice to make. Either we make the decision, or “time and chance” will decide for us what we were unwilling to decide for ourselves! Either way, a decision will be made. The question is, will we take charge and assume greater control of the outcome, or will we allow luck or fate to determine the outcome for us? There is an old story about two men drifting on a raft traveling down the Niagara River toward the ominous Niagara Falls. They began to argue about how far they were from the falls and when they should go ashore. The argument continued…far too long. While they delayed making a decision, time made the decision for them, with unfortunate results.
An example of this situation can be seen in the recent terrorist event experienced in the United States. For many years, one event after another warned American leaders that terrorism was at our shore. The 1993 World Trade Center Bombing was a “wake up call” to a sheltered nation about the real threat of terrorism. Six people died in the blast, which caused an estimated $600 million in property and other economic damage. Trials that followed convicted six people of carrying out the attack. In 1995, an American citizen bombed a Federal Building in Oklahoma City causing the death of 168 people and injuring more than 500, making it the deadliest terrorist attack at that time in the United States. Other attacks again Americans included hijackings, embassy bombings, and assaults against American ships in harbor. It was time for leadership, and the courage to make some difficult decisions. American leaders did what democratic leaders often do in this kind of a situation. In 1996, the American Congress passed, and the President signed antiterrorism legislation to strengthen the power of the federal government to respond to both international and domestic terrorism. It was weak legislation intended to show citizens that something was being done. But it should have been time for decisive action and commitment. It would have required an enormous investment in resources and greater government scrutiny. Political leaders were unwilling to make the tough decisions. On September 11th, 2001 time decided for us what we were unwilling to decide for ourselves.
The purpose of this article is not to encourage you to lurch into ill-advised or poor decision making. Leaders should seek the facts, get advice, do the research and build support whenever possible. But there does come a time when a decision…the decision must be made. It has been said that former American President and World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower once commented, “A wrong decision is better than indecision”. Think about why a military General would have made this comment. A wrong decision is at least a choice, and if that choice is wrong there if often enough time to retrench, regroup and alter the course. However, indecision only erodes precious time and often removes the option of real choice from the decision maker. Again, sometimes the only risk is not taking one. As author and educator Gary Dessler states, “Very few decisions are forever; there is more “give” in most decisions than we realize. While many major strategic decisions are hard to reverse, most poor decisions won’t mean the end of the world for you, so don’t become frozen in the finality of your decision”. Even Lou Gehrig got a chance to bat again the very next day!
At the heart and core of leadership is also the willingness to take personal responsibility for a difficult decision. On June 6, 1944, in World War II, General Eisenhower agonized over a difficult decision to allow Allied forces to land in Normandy, France. The weather had been poor and threatened to derail the Allied assault. A window of opportunity was closing and it was time for decisive action. Eisenhower gave approval for the landing. However, he also took the time to write an announcement to be broadcast in case the landing failed and the Allies were unable to secure a beachhead. In the handwritten announcement, Eisenhower accepted full responsibility for the failure. Thankfully, it was never needed!
Many experts in management believe that not all decisions are the same. They differentiate between what they call programmed and nonprogrammeddecisions. Programmed decisions are defined as ones that are repetitive and can typically be resolved through rational analysis and mechanical procedures. It is believed that the overwhelming majority of decisions we make are programmed decisions. Standard rules of deduction can be applied to these decision types. Of course this is easier said than done! This assumes one’s thinking is rational and that the “standard rules of deduction” are sound and valid. On the other hand, nonprogrammed decisions are defined as novel and unique in nature. This includes crisis situations or when we are at a personal crossroad in life. These decisions rely heavily on our judgment and values rather than clear-cut analysis. They are typically more urgent and require greater focus. These are the tough agonizing decisions that may need to be based on incomplete information and unknown criteria. Sometimes there is no clear choice of what is right or wrong. There may be little “black and white” and mostly shades of gray. This is where we need to muster all the creativity and intuition we can find deep within ourselves. Because these nonprogrammed decisions are usually strategic, the risk and consequences can be greater.
Here are a few tips to improve your decision-making ability. Recognize the facts as they really are and not how you want to see them. It is easy to ignore or reinterpret the facts because we are looking to support a conclusion we desire. For example, those who study theology often fall prey to a problem called proof-texting. This is where the theologian first comes to aconclusion, and then looks for scriptures to support a preconceived belief. Maintain your objectivity so your decision is based on an intelligent analysis of the actual facts and not a preconceived decision. Don’t be afraid to use your intuition. This is where you unconsciously make a decision based on accumulated experience and knowledge. Having firm personal values and strong ethics add to the benefit of good intuition. Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud stated,
“When making a decision of minor importance I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of our personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”
Obviously if the deep inner needs of our nature are based on a foundation of integrity and genuine concern for others, our intuition will serve us well. Another decision-making tip is to be careful not to use shortcuts to save time. A common shortcut is called heuristics. This is used to speed up decision-making by applying “rules of thumb” to quickly reach a conclusion. For example, a senior manager may say, “I only want individuals with advanced degrees to apply for this position”. This may speed up the selection process, but may also mean the bestqualified individual is rejected. The final tip I offer is to avoid anchoring. The trait of anchoring is where we give too much credence to the first information or set of facts that we hear. This first bit of information then becomes the benchmark by which the decision will be made and later information that is contrary is minimized.
The next time you are confronted with the need to make a decision, I hope you will remember the story of Lou Gerhig. It is better to choose your own course and perhaps even go down “swinging” than to sit idly by and allow luck or chance to make the decision for you. A leader’s calling is to make the hard decisions when they are needed. Yes, there is a risk to decision-making, but there is often a greater risk when we do nothing and allow fate to decide for us. So be sure you gather the facts, get sound advice, do the necessary research and try to build support from others. Then make the decision, because sometimes the only risk is not taking one!
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About the author:
Greg has over 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the electrical distribution industry. Some of his positions have included being a National Sales Manager, National Marketing Manager and for the past 9 years that of Regional Sales Manager. He also has extensive experience in public speaking and has written articles for various publications. Greg has a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University where he presently serves as an adjunct faculty member teaching courses in management. Greg is also the president and founder of weLEAD Incorporated.
Dessler, Gary. Management – Leading People and Organizations in the 21st Century. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001
Fitzgerald, Ernest A. Keeping Pace: Inspirations In The Air. Greensboro, North Carolina: Pace Communications, Inc., 1988
Heilbroner, Robert. How To Make an Intelligent Decision. Think, December 1990, pp. 2-4