December 7th of this past week marked the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan. Every year around this time I’m reminded of the powerful, and sometimes largely unknown, consequences of the decisions we make. The reminder stems from a story that I heard my wife’s grandpa, Don Hadley, tell dozens of times about a decision he made 70 years ago that changed the course of his life.
In the summer of 1940, Don Hadley was a newly married U.S. Marine stationed in San Diego, CA. Returning from his honeymoon, he received a call from his Gunnery Sergeant informing him of his new assignment: Report to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor for a two-year tour of duty.
Not wanting to move his wife away from her Italian-immigrant family, Don asked if there were any other options. He was told he could go to Guam for 18 months, but it would be sea duty versus the two years of shore duty in Pearl aboard the USS Arizona. He chose Guam. Anyone familiar with the history of the attack on Pearl Harbor knows that the USS Arizona was sunk during the battle, resulting in 1,177 officers and crew losing their lives.
This one decision had a relatively few number of stakeholders directly affected by the outcome and the potential consequences seemed narrow in scope. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that generations of lives were impacted as a result of this one choice.
In a leadership capacity, this story has always reminded me of the importance of making good decisions. There may be consequences to our decisions that we can’t readily see on the surface so it’s vital that we make wise decisions. Here’s some tips and techniques to help you make good decisions:
1. Don’t overestimate your decision-making abilities – That fact is that most of us don’t receive much formal training in how to make decisions. Creating a list of pro’s and con’s is a good start, but there are many other decision-making tools that can help. Select the tools most appropriate for the decisions you need to make.
2. Be clear on the decision you need to make – There is a difference between problem-solving and decision-making. Problem-solving usually deals with a more complex set of variables whereas a decision is a subset of solving a particular problem. Dig into the root issues of the situation you’re involved with and determine what exactly it is you’re trying to decide. You don’t want to spend time making a decision about an issue that isn’t at the core of the situation.
3. Gather the facts – It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many times we rush to decisions because we assume we know all the facts. Do research, talk to people familiar with the situation, and get advice from unbiased advisers. One of the quickest ways to erode trust with your followers is to make rash decisions that come back to haunt you because you didn’t take the time to thoroughly vet the situation.
4. Understand the impact on the stakeholders – Consider the needs and desires of those affected by the decision. Does your decision promote the welfare of those involved? Is it fair and just? Is it in alignment with your personal values and those of the organization? Try to step into the shoes of those on the receiving end of the decision to understand how they may perceive the outcome, and if possible, solicit input from those affected and incorporate their feedback into your decision if it makes sense.
5. Make the decision and follow through – In their classic Harvard Business Review article, The Smart-Talk Trap, authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton explain that in business, “When confronted with a problem, people act as if discussing it, formulating decisions, and hashing out plans for action are the same as actually fixing it.” Trusted leaders do more than talk – they actually make a decision and follow through by implementing it. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught in “analysis-paralysis,” always wanting to discuss it a little bit more or gather just a few more facts. At some point you have to make the decision and move forward. If it ends up being the wrong decision then change course and try again!
I’m glad that Grandpa Don made the decision to go to Guam. If he didn’t, I almost certainly would never have had the opportunity to marry my wonderful wife Kim and have the beautiful family that I’m blessed with today. Trusted leaders take time to make wise decisions and then move forward confidently knowing they did their best.
This is important for all of us to remember in a business environment that chases the sun – one that never sleeps. We also must find ways to help us personally manage our biases that shape our decisions.
Hi Shawn. Thank you for your comments. Today’s 24/7 business lifestyle works against taking time to make wise decisions. Managing our personal biases are key to thinking clearly about the particular decision at hand.
All the five points are good. Yes todays technology and leadership era these points are very much valid. Thanks for sharing.
There are two things that really stand out for me in your article – be clear about the decision you really need to make and your point that decision making and problem solving are not the same thing. When we keep having to solve the same or similar problems it may be an indication that it is time to make a decision we either haven’t been able to recognize or haven’t been willing to make. Solving the problem at hand can seem like progress but may in fact be an exercise in avoidance if we don’t take the time to observe what is going on.
Hi Susan. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You bring up a good point in that constant revisiting of the same problem/decision may indicate that there is a deeper issue, or a different issue, that needs to be addressed. Isn’t it amazing the way we can rationalize and deceive ourselves from addressing the REAL issues?
Randy, Solid post on making decisions. I agree, especially with the thought about being clear on the decision we need to make. Clarity on what actually needs to be addressed is critical. In the discussion, it is easy to get off track, distracted, from really needs to be addressed. It may be the more challenging decision to make, yet it is the only one that will address the situation. Excellent! Thank you! Jon
Hi Jon. You’re spot on by pointing out that it’s critical we get clear on the decision that needs to be made. Sometimes our thinking gets clouded with so many peripheral issues surrounding a particular situation that we lose track of the core issue that needs to be addressed.
Thanks for your insights,