Making decisions in the dim light of incomplete information
“Leadership is the art of making decisions in the dim light of incomplete information, and is measured with the brilliant illumination of hindsight.“
We tend to judge ourselves on our intentions and other people on their actions, and this is nowhere more true than in delivering and assessing leadership. Leadership can be defined as “the art of making decisions in the dim light of incomplete information”, however, leadership is often measured with the brilliant illumination of hindsight.
As a result, there is a gap that emerges between the leader’s intentions and the subsequent assessment of their actions, and this is magnified by the quality and quantity of information we have against which to measure the initial intentions, and the resulting actions.
“You don’t want to do it like that“~ Harry Enfield sketch
When I was a teenager I wanted a bike of my own. I had learned to ride on hand me down bikes, which would have been okay if I had an older brother. I didn’t. I have two older sisters, so the bikes I got to ride had no crossbar, and my friends at school made sure to remind me about that pretty frequently.
I remember having my first boys bike as a birthday present, and I was absolutely delighted. I loved being able to ride a bike that had no signs of rust, and of course the most important thing was that it had a crossbar!
I also remember the last day I had that bike. It was on a rare day when I cycled to school, and I remember vividly arriving at school to find that I had forgotten to bring my padlock with me. I had decision to make. I could return home and collect the padlock, or park it somewhere out of sight without a padlock.
Well, as you may have already guessed, I decided not to return home to get the padlock since that would make me late (and I didn’t want to be late), and when I came back to the bike sheds to cycle home at the end of the day, of course, it had gone. My bike had gone. Forever. And I didn’t get a replacement for several years; my parents decided it would teach me a valuable lesson, and it did!
“We tend to judge ourselves on our intentions and other people on their actions.”
I remember another decision I was faced with. As a family we were on our way to Florida for the first time. In our party we had my mum who at the time was in her 80s, along with four other members of the family, none of whom had been on a long haul flight before, and I was the one who ended up leading the party.
As we faced the security queue while changing flights on our way there we were approached by someone who was trying to sell us something, or so I thought. Well, I let them know that we weren’t buying and led us off to join the queue; we didn’t have any time to waste because it was a pretty long queue and we had a flight to catch!
It wasn’t until we were chatting about that flight some years later that it became clear to me that the person who was “trying to sell us something” was actually about to offer to take us to the front of the security queue because we had an elderly lady (my mum) in the party. Now my mum would have been the first to let you know in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t an elderly lady, however in my haste to proceed with my original plan I caused us all to miss out on what would have been a very helpful shortcut.
In both cases, my intentions may have been understandable, however in hindsight my decisions and subsequent actions were found to have been faulty.
Back in 1984, after the world didn’t turn out as predicted by the English novelist George Orwell in his book of the same name, there was an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate members of the British Government. In a statement by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, they said: “Mrs. Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”
“Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”~ IRA Statement
Political history is littered with leaders the world over who have had many years in a position of leadership and power, and yet their entire political career is often summed up in a statement about a single decision. Now, please hear my heart in this and know that I’m not making a judgement about these issues or pronouncing that whether I consider them to be right or wrong, rather I am reflecting on the issue that, in the brilliant light of hindsight, their entire career has become summed up in a single issue.
- Ted Heath will be remembered as the politician who took the UK into the Common Market in the early 1970s and divided the conservative party
- Gordon Brown will be remembered for his handling of financial regulation leading up to the banking crisis in 2008
- Margaret Thatcher has been called a conviction politician, yet it seems that she never truly convinced the British people that her convictions were politically or morally right.
- Tony Blair has become a war criminal in the eyes of many over his decision to lead the UK to join the US-led invasion of Iraq.
- David Cameron will be remembered as the person who divided the country by holding a referendum on leaving the EU, and initiating the subsequent Brexit journey.
- Theresa May will be remembered as the leader who failed to get a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
- Boris Johnson will be remember for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, however that turns out when we get a chance to look back and reflect.
Other examples from history are perhaps less well known.
Decca decided not to sign a group called the Silver Beatles (later of course shortened to “The Beatles”) in favour of Brian Poole and the Tremoloes, saying that Guitar groups are on their way out.
“Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr Epstein.”~ Dick Rowe of Decca
Despite inventing it, Kodak’s leadership team turned down the digital camera because they feared that it would destroy their existing business.
In the US, the Eighteenth Amendment banned the sale of alcoholic drinks, which simply created an environment of widespread tolerance of crime in order to provide people with the booze they wanted.
More recently, all of the twelve publishing firms who turned down the opportunity to publish “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” will have regretted their decision to turn away what is now considered the fastest-selling series of books ever.
The one thing in common with all of these decisions that have been found to be faulty in hindsight, is that arguably many, if not all of them were taken by people with the best of intentions at the time.
Of course, bad, wrong and ill-advised decisions need to be scrutinised and the people who have taken them need to be taken to task and held to account.
However, before jumping in hastily to join the condemnation and criticism of a decision, maybe we’ll take a moment to allow a little space for consideration of the need for a leader to make a decision in times when there is little evidence to help inform those responsible for taking the decision that needs to be made.
About Roger Fairhead
Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.
“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.
Leadership for Business also invests into the dreams of families in the world’s underserved communities to offer them small loans that empower them to invest in their future, to provide for their families and give back to their communities.