“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing”
26th President of the United States
In my F-15, I had to make instantaneous decisions on a regular basis. The enemy fighter is in my sights…do I pull lead and go for guns right now or do I go to lag to get a better shot in a handful of seconds? If I choose the wrong course of action, I could overshoot and be put into a defensive situation or I could be out of the fight and never have another opportunity to shoot down the enemy. In business and in the military, leaders are often required to make split second decisions that carry severe consequences if they choose the wrong path. How do you make the correct one?
You will most likely not have time to process all the info. You must anticipate the decisions that you will have to make before you are in that situation. In fighter pilot parlance, we call those contingencies. A set of pre-loaded decisions based on the inputs. For example, if during takeoff, nothing deleterious occurs, then you execute the takeoff normally. However, if you lose an engine before go/no-go speed, you abort the takeoff. If the engine failure occurs after go/no-go speed, you takeoff and handle the emergency in the air. So right there, you have 3 courses of action based on the most likely inputs. Granted, 99.9% of the time you will make a normal takeoff, but you always discuss those contingencies so you don’t have to waste precious seconds analyzing what’s going on…you just react.
Think through each situation
Part of being a good leader is to anticipate where your decision points will occur. Just like a batter anticipating where the ball will arrive over the plate and starting his swing to connect with a ball that has not even left the pitcher’s hand, you have to anticipate decisions in your sphere of influence. Some leaders are known for making good decisions. I would argue these leaders have actually spent a considerable amount of time before the decision was required thinking through the potential courses of action and their ramifications so when it came time to make the decision, it happened quickly and accurately.
Consider the likely courses of action
Once you identify the decision points, think ahead to the likely courses of action from which you will have to choose. The decision becomes like a box in a flow chart with inputs and outputs, or like a basic computer programing language with If/Then statements. If “this” occurs, then choose “that” outcome. Think through the likely inputs and consider which output should occur in a perfect world. Be ready to take one of those paths once the information is in.
Assess the inputs and react
When the time comes to make the decision, you will have knowledge of that situation preloaded into your mental calculus and can react quickly. As Plato said, “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers”. Because you have anticipated the decisions you will have to make, you have thought enough about them to have real knowledge of the situation, not just reacting to information on the surface. Thus, if an input arrives that is not exactly what you had anticipated, you are ready to weed out the less-optimal outcomes and at least make an informed decision quickly.
Good leadership is difficult. Making the correct decisions the first time is why leaders are so important to an organization and can be the difference between a healthy profit or a substantial loss…or a successful operation and mission failure. You owe it to your team to be ready to make that decision when it arrives. One of the greatest military minds of the modern era was Napoleon Bonaparte. He probably made millions of decisions and knew how important they were and how difficult it was to get them right. I’ll let him end this blog: “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.”