Saturday, April 13, 2024

OPINION: HARVEY MACKAY — Make decisions that make a difference

| May 10, 2020 1:00 AM

T. Boone Pickens, the late famed oil prospector and corporate raider, said in commencement remarks at George Washington University: “Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader. Don’t fall victim to what I call the ‘ready-aim-aim-aim-aim syndrome.’ You must be willing to fire.”

It’s common knowledge that most people simply do not like to make tough decisions. That’s why the frustrated executive replaced the “In” and “Out” trays on his desk with one labeled “Stalled.”

We are at a critical point for many businesses right now; decisions made today affect the future survival of every operation. The pandemic has stalled all kinds of decisions that would have been five-minute conversations just weeks ago. And so many decisions were made for us by government orders. Can’t overrule those.

So how best to approach the pressing issues within our control that need immediate action?

Sigmund Freud and his niece once discussed how difficult it was for some people to make a decision. He said, “I’ll tell you what I tell them. I ask them to toss a coin.”

His niece said, “I can’t believe it. You, a man of science, guided by senseless chance!”

Freud answered: “I did not say you should follow blindly what the coin tells you. What I want you to do is to note what the coin indicates. Then look into your own reactions. Ask yourself: Am I pleased? Am I disappointed? That will help you to recognize how you really feel about the matter, deep down inside. With that as a basis, you’ll then be ready to make up your mind and come to the right decision.”

We grow by making decisions and assuming responsibility for them. You’re not going to be right all the time. In fact, President Harry Truman said, “Whenever I make a bum decision, I just go out and make another.”

One of his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt, had a little different take: “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.”

Sitting on a decision too long just creates a new problem. Not making a decision is doing nothing.

Counselor and researcher Trudi Griffin says there are simple ways to make the decision process less intimidating, such as “identifying the worst-case scenario, making a spreadsheet, and following your gut instinct.” In addition, she recommends considering whether the decision will be permanent. “Most decisions are reversible, so you can take comfort in knowing that if you hate your decision, you can always make a change to fix the situation later on.”

She also counsels to “learn to distinguish between an impulse and intelligent decision.” Once you’ve weighed your options, you can usually figure out if your first reaction was reasonable or a quick fix. Take a breath and give yourself time to think.

Ask any CEO or manager if they are proud of all the decisions they have made, and I will guarantee the answer will be no. But ask them if they learned from their mistakes, and I will also guarantee the answer will be yes, at least from the smartest ones.

Good decision-making is learned. It stems from good judgment, which is also learned, frequently the hard way. But with practice, good decision-making becomes much easier.

Strong leaders have no problem in making decisions. They are confident that their decisions are the best. Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, said, “My idea of a group decision is to look in the mirror.”

Buffet takes responsibility for his decisions, and his stockholders trust his judgment. Therein lies another facet of decision-making: owning your decision. Celebrate when you’ve made the right choice and find a fix when you haven’t.

The folly of human nature is neatly summed up by the case of the schoolteacher who invested her life savings in a business enterprise that had been elaborately explained to her by a swindler.

When her investment disappeared and the wonderful dream was shattered, she went to the office of the Better Business Bureau. “Why on earth didn’t you come to us first?” they asked. Didn’t you know about the Better Business Bureau?”

“Oh, yes,” said the teacher sadly. “I’ve always known about you. But I didn’t come because I was afraid you’d tell me not to do it.”

Mackay’s Moral: Life is all about decisions. Choose wisely.

• • •

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his website,, by emailing or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.