When it comes to decision-making, the vast majority of us have been brought up with a clean-plate, tidy-desk mentality-that is, never put off to tomorrow a decision you can make today. This bit of conventional wisdom may be good counsel for managers and bureaucrats, but it is terrible advice for leaders. By contrast, the contrarian leader’s approach to decision-making can be summarized in two general rules:
Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.
Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.
Of course, the weasel word here is “reasonably”’. Deciding what that means with respect to a particular, impending decision is a fine art requiring a great deal of skill and practice.
Let’s begin with Rule 1. Generally speaking, most decisions that confront leaders can he reasonably delegated to a lieutenant, provided the leader has excellent lieutenants and is able to choose the one among them who is in the best position to decide a particular issue. But just because a leader can delegate the making of decisions to lieutenants doesn’t mean he can avoid taking responsibility for those decisions, especially if things turn out badly as a result.
This is one of the conundrums that prevent most people from becoming effective leaders: They believe-erroneously, as it turns out-that if they have the authority to decide a certain issue, and if in the end they must take personal responsibility for the decision (especially if it proves to be a mistake), they must then make the decision themselves. It is simply inconceivable to the average person that he should under any circumstances allow a subordinate to make an erroneous decision for which he (the leader) will be held ultimately responsible. But that is in fact the very essence of major-league leadership.
Military leaders are especially well trained in the art of delegating decisions to subordinates while retaining ultimate responsibility for those decisions. I recall hearing a story – possibly apocryphal – about Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. MacNamara was of course a total amateur when it came to waging war. As he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were watching a display that showed the positions of the U.S. ships as they approached Cuba, MacNamara noticed that one of the ships had moved out of formation. He immediately asked the Chief of Staff of the Navy to order the captain of that particular ship to move back into his prescribed position, to which the admiral allegedly replied, “Mr. Secretary, I’ll be happy to relieve the fleet commander if you’d like me to, but as long as he5 in charge I’m not going to tell him how to direct the individual ships under his command.“ Unlike his boss, the Chief of Staff of the Navy understood the realities and the risks of high-stakes delegation.
So why should a leader delegate at all? Why not reserve unto himself every possible decision, both large and small? After all, if he is the leader, everyone should be doing what he says, right?
Actually, many leaders of smaller movements and organizations do try to make all the decisions themselves, and under certain circumstances this approach works very well. But such leaders almost always crash and burn as the organization grows; or alternatively, the organization itself collapses when the original leader ages or becomes ill or dies.
Even in small organizations, there are compelling reasons why a leader should consistently delegate most decisions to selected lieutenants. The first has to do with time constraints. Making a good decision is hard, time-consuming work, and no leader can make many good decisions in a month’s time, much less in a day or a week. So he needs to carefully reserve for himself only the most important decisions, and cheerfully delegate the rest.
A second major factor in favour of delegation is that it helps develop and nurture strong lieutenants. A leader cannot expect his lieutenants to grow, and grow up, unless he gives them the opportunity to make real decisions that will have real consequences for the organization, without their being constantly second-guessed by the leader.
Finally, the contrarian leader who is willing to delegate almost all decisions to lieutenants has an opportunity to build a much stronger and more cohesive organization than does the leader who tries to make all the decisions himself. This assertion is very counterintuitive; one would think at first blush that strength and cohesiveness would be on the side of the absolute dictator. But here is the key: The leader who delegates is forced to build cohesiveness by putting together a team of lieutenants who have shared values and common goals. If he is successful in this regard, his organization can survive the loss of the leader himself (which will always happen eventually).
By contrast, when a dictatorial leader leaves the scene, there is usually no strong and well-knit set of lieutenants to carry the organization forward in a coherent way. An abrupt ending of years of dictatorial repression usually leads to an eruption of bitter factions and infighting. (Think of Yugoslavia after Tito’s death.)
All right, the contrarian leader follows Rule 1 and delegates almost all decisions to lieutenants. The question then is: Which few decisions should he keep for himself?
First, the leader should reserve to himself the hiring, compensating, motivating, moulding, assessing and firing of his chief lieutenants. In the long term, these may well be the most important decisions that any leader makes (a point that is missed by almost all hooks on leadership).
Second, the leader himself should make those decisions which hare the greatest potential impact on the organization or movement he is leading. Should we sell the company? Should we buy out or merge with a competitor? Should we risk half our net worth on the development of a single new product? Should we close down our medical school? These are questions for the leader, not his lieutenants.
An important factor in choosing which decisions to make is knowing whether or not you really have the authority to make a particular decision. Many aspiring leaders get chewed up by overreaching the bounds of their jurisdiction. They make brilliant decisions with respect to matters that in fact lie within the domain of some other leader or official, and in the process squander a great deal of their credibility and legitimacy.
George Washington was especially adroit at avoiding this pitfall. Rather than arrogate power to himself, he would often defer to the authority of others (such as a squabbling and incompetent Congress). Only when it was clear to ail that the authority to make a certain decision was legitimately his would Washington exercise his power as President. As the historian, Garry Wills, noted, “This is the paradox of leadership in a legal system-it asserts authority by deferring to it, as Washington wielded power by giving it up.”
We now come to the contrarian leader approach to the timing of decisions, as expressed in Rule 2: Never make a decision today that can reasonably he put off till tomorrow. Rule 2 is so counterintuitive to the average person as to appear ridiculous. But for effective leadership over the long term, it is an absolute necessity I like to call it “artful procrastination.”
Almost all sophisticated leaders are artful procrastinators to a greater or lesser extent, a trait that was personified b) Harry Truman. Whenever a staff member would come to him with a problem or opportunity requiring a presidential decision, the first thing Truman would ask was, “How much time do I have?” Was it essential that he make the decision in 30 seconds, in an hour, in a day, some time next week, in a month, within the year?
Truman well understood that the timing of a decision could be as important as the decision itself. A long lead time opened the door for extensive consultation and discussion; a very short lead time meant the president could only look inside his own soul, and then only briefly, for an answer that might affect millions of people.
One of the hidden benefits of Rule 2 is that it can open up many more options for the leader than might initially have been available to him. If a decision can be reasonably delayed for, say, a few months, an adversary might die or resign, a competitor might go bankrupt, a court might hand down an advantageous new decision, or interest rates might decline. To paraphrase the young, “stuff happens,” and the stuff that happens is sometimes all to the good.
However, there is also a huge potential downside to Rule 2-namely, waiting too long. Just as procrastination can open up new options for the leader, it can also lead to options being foreclosed. Again, “stuff happens,” and the stuff that happens might well be deleterious. So we are back to the question of the timing of decision-making, which is an art unto itself.
One of my favourite expressions is, “Sometimes no decision by Tuesday is in fact a decision by default.” In other words, if failing to make a decision by next Tuesday means that the decision will be effectively removed from the leader’s hands by external forces, or that his options will be significantly narrowed, he must have the courage to make a conscious decision by Tuesday and get on with it. For it is one thing for a leader to delegate a decision to a lieutenant, but an entirely different (and unacceptable) thing for him to surrender a decision to fate or to his adversaries. Therein lies the difference between artful and cowardly procrastination.
General George McClellan is a wonderful example of a cowardly procrastinator. Named by Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac in 1861, McClellan wasted numerous opportunities to seriously engage and perhaps even defeat the Confederate forces. As Garry Wills observed, “For McClellan, the doctrine of predominant numbers was a principle of paralysis. He felt he never had enough troops, well enough trained or equipped.” After McClellan repeatedly squandered the North’s military advantage over the South, Lincoln sacked him. McClellan may have simply been the victim of the Peter Principle-a brilliant and talented man promoted just one notch over his head. But certainly his ability to make bold decisions when the time came to make them was almost nil.
Another important element in decision-making is judgment. Whenever I teach electromagnetic theory to undergraduates in electrical engineering, I like to tease my students by posing the following question: At what point should an engineer stop doing further analysis of a problem and proceed to implement a solution which he knows to be imperfect, and which he knows presents some degree of danger to the public? Most young engineers (and all tort lawyers) will answer, “Never! Keep searching until you find the right answer which involves no danger to anyone!”
But outside the make-believe environment of a courtroom, such an answer is impracticable if not downright silly As I point out to my students, real engineers make decisions under a complex set of constraints involving time, cost, size, weight, reliability, safety, customer appeal, and threats posed by competitors. In short, real engineers-and real leaders-must make judgments, which are sometimes based as much on gut feel as on precise analysis and testing.
One must always keep in mind that leadership is an art, not a science. Effective management may be a science (although I have my doubts), but effective leadership is purely an art. And weaving together the many aspects of decision-making is an art in itself. When it is done well, the result is a thing of beauty and a powerful tool for effective leadership.