Decisions made in a vacuum often suck up the credibility and power of a leader.
The dominating media event of the past week involved the exchange of Taliban captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five terrorists held prisoner at Guantanamo. Barely had the euphoria of having an American soldier freed from five years of captivity at the hands of the Taliban begun, when the good feeling was captured and taken prisoner by the hypocritical, grandstanding, demagogic, second-guessing political posturing by those on both sides of the issue.
This political dust storm quickly obscured the actual repatriation of Bergdahl, making that piece of the story virtually irrelevant. There is little fresh-ground to cover in this “controversy,” and that is not the intent of this piece. However, there is an enlightening lesson for any leader to learn when it comes to making decisions and solving problems.
The uproar started when the White House staged a “major announcement” in the Rose Garden. President Obama, flanked by Bergdahl’s relieved parents, announced – and took credit for – his release. It was as if all of America had been waiting breathlessly for word of Bergdahl’s release. The decision to trade Bergdahl for terrorists was cited by the White House as another example of Obama’s indomitable perseverance and great leadership. By making the release a big deal, Obama and his staff opened the door for the criticism that quickly ensued.
Of course, in the current polarized political environment, there is no way Obama could have made the “right decision.” If he had not made the exchange with the Taliban, and it later became public that he could have (as it certainly would have), he was sure to be attacked for failing to make the deal and “leaving an American soldier behind.” However, by making the exchange, Obama opened himself up to criticism for dealing with terrorists and making a “bad deal.” This carping was made plausible by those who disparaged Bergdahl as not being worthy of being repatriated.
(It should be noted that in 1804 President Thomas Jefferson negotiated with and paid $60,000 in ransom – equal to almost $50 million in today’s dollars – to Barbary Coast Muslim pirates to gain the release of captive American sailors. In 2011, Israel negotiated with the terrorist group Hamas and released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one captured Israeli soldier. The Palestinian prisoners had been convicted of killing at least 600 Israeli civilians.)
But as mentioned earlier, the purpose here is not to debate the Bergdahl case; rather, it is to use it as a lesson for any leader who makes decisions that may be controversial.
Four Key Questions to Ask
It is a given that a leader should gather as much information as possible before making a decision. Most effective leaders will ask these four questions:
- What is the problem?
- What are the options available?
- What is the potential result or fallout from each option?
- What action is recommended?
If those presenting the problem can’t clearly answer those questions, the leader sends them back until they can. This is the customary approach for making most decisions, although sometimes controversial or complex decisions require additional subtlety.
It is vitally important for a leader to avoid making critical decisions in a vacuum. Doing so does not give the leader exposure to other ideas and input, and requires the leader to “sell” the decision after – rather than before – it has been announced. Subordinates or colleagues should never be surprised or be caught off-guard by the leader’s decisions. Those who will be impacted by or who may oppose the decision should be brought into the process. It’s not that they actually make the final decision, but including them in the process gives the leader fresh insights, and can reduce, if not eliminate, opposition. At the very least, the leader will know what arguments to anticipate from the opposition.
Obama on the Defensive from the Start
The most critical mistake President Obama made in the Bergdahl case was to ignore the concept of inclusion, and make the decision in a virtual vacuum. This faux pas was made obvious by the fact that he has been on the defensive from the very moment the decision was announced in the Rose Garden. Everyone – friends and foes – were caught off-guard. By listening only to those who worked for him and, in fact, technically violating the law, Obama opened himself up to the flood of criticism he is now receiving.
Certainly there are times – and Obama is using this as his defense – when matters of principle give a leader license to make a decision without including others. However, that is only valid if it does not violate other principles. Obama is relying on the unwritten code of “no soldier left behind,” but by failing to include those who might oppose his actions, he can and is being accused of violating other unwritten principles such as “not negotiating with terrorists” and “not paying ransom for hostages.” (All three of these “principles” have been violated on numerous occasions in the past, but on most occasions, relevant parties were involved and informed beforehand.)
The fact is that Obama (perhaps for good reason) has become “tone deaf” to those who might oppose his decisions, especially those in Congress. If Obama had the self-confidence of his position, and had taken the time to bring leaders of Congress into his confidence and solicit their input (let alone tell them in advance of the decision), he would be in a much better position to defend his decision.
It might be seen as naive for a leader to include opposition in the discussions, but some decisions are so critical and controversial that the only way to come to a positive conclusion is to do so. This approach also offers perspective, potentially mutes the opposition, and can prevent poor decisions.
Few leaders will be confronted with the complexities of presidential decision-making, or be consistently challenged by those who oppose any action, no matter what it may be. However, the concept of inclusion is still valid for any decision making process.
Inclusive Decisions Engender Support
When I was leading LifeUSA and then Allianz Life, we were often required to make decisions that would mean changes in products, compensation or processes that would impact our independent agent sales force (whose support was critical to our success.) As a whole, this group was highly resistant to change, but decisions still had to be made. We discovered that when we brought the leaders of this group into our process, we had a much better chance of decisions being understood, accepted and even supported.
Frequently, we also discovered options that had not been considered, and we were able to eliminate surprises and answer many of the objections that would be raised, even before the decision was made. More often than not, we found that the leaders in the field were the most effective defenders of a decision once it had been made.
When a leader is called upon to make a decision, the process to make the best decision is:
- Understand exactly what the problem is and how critical it is to make a decision.
- Don’t labor over the decision, but make sure that options and the implications of those options have been thoroughly explored and understood.
- Involve those who will be impacted by the decision.
- Seek options and input even from those who may be opposed to the decision.
- Work to sell the decision before it is announced.
- Do your best to make sure that when the decision is announced, it is anticlimactic rather than cataclysmic.
Following these principles will not guarantee that the right decision will always be made, but it will increase the odds of doing so and make it much more likely that the decision will be accepted and supported. On the other hand, ignoring these principles increases the chances of making a bad decision and raises the specter that even good decisions will not be understood and supported.