Getting into the Decision Game

Jan 24, 2019

By Michael Useem

To launch or delay? Fire or hire, take a promotion or let it be? A marriage counselor or a divorce lawyer? How about surgery or what physicians call watchful waiting? Decisions come in all shapes and sizes, with every sort of consequence in between. Some decisions are fleeting, the difference between a social grace and a faux pas. Others are fearsome, keeping us restless and awake for hours. At the extreme, they can become what F. Scott Fitzgerald described in The Crack-Up as the “real dark night of the soul” when “it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”

At work, at home, in the community, we make decisions all the time, a constant barrage of them. Or we fail to make them, put off to tomorrow, let things slide, opt out of the game. Some decisions are as trivial as ordering whole wheat or rye, while others are as consequential as standing in silence or blowing the whistle when witness to company malfeasance.

Last month, Performance & Profits asked our readers what they thought was the most effective way to make a decision. Here's what you said:

The exercise of tough choices might be one of the most universal of all experiences. In a national survey taken in 2000, four out of five respondents said decision making was very important in their current or most recent job. What’s more, the capacity to make choices—the willingness to jump into the decision game and play it well—is arguably one of the great discriminators and predictors of ultimate success or failure. “Managers at every level,” warned former General Electric chief executive Jack Welch, have to be ready to make many “hard decisions.” Those who can do so rise high; those who cannot manage it tread water or sink.

Gustavus Who?

We have all known the fortunate few for whom decisions seem effortless. They glide through one judgment call after another, flummoxed by none, content with most, never breaking a sweat. Ernest Hemingway called it grace under pressure. We have also known the opposite, the equivocators who cannot get off the fence, the contemplators who consider a choice from every angle, the freezers who simply lock up at a consequential moment.

More than 135 years after his death, Robert E. Lee has some fifty public schools across the South named after him. Gustavus Woodson Smith has none; indeed, his name is virtually unknown outside a small circle of Civil War buffs and historians. Yet on May 31, 1862, with the Union Army under George McClellan knocking on Richmond’s gates and threatening to make short work of the new Confederacy, it was Smith, not Lee, to whom Confederate president Jefferson Davis turned.

So alarmed was Davis by the 125,000-man enemy force advancing on his capital that he had ridden out to the front lines that day to consult with Joseph E. Johnston, the general in charge of Richmond’s defense. Davis had almost reached his general when shrapnel and a bullet knocked Johnston from his horse and took him out of action. With that, Davis extended a battlefield promotion to Johnston’s ranking subordinate, the forty-year-old Gustavus W. Smith, and handed over to him the defense of Richmond and, by extension, the fate of the Confederacy.

There was no question of Smith’s pedigree. Born in Kentucky and educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he graduated eighth in the Class of 1842, a group that included such future Civil War luminaries as Abner Doubleday and James Longstreet. Nor was there any question of Smith’s personal bravery or military acumen. Like Jefferson Davis, he had fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War in 1846–1847 and served briefly on the faculty of West Point before involving himself in New York City politics. He had a blustery style, one that seemed to suggest that this was a general not easily fazed. Yet when Davis summoned him to greatness, Smith shrank from the task.

At a meeting with Davis and his military aide, Robert E. Lee, at 8:30 p.m. on May 31, Smith appeared at a loss. When Davis pressed him for his plans for the defense of Richmond, the newly appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia responded by asking his president what he knew about the day’s battle. Smith confessed that he “could not determine” without more information “what was best to be done.” The next day, after his army had achieved little on the battlefield, Smith took ill and appeared on the verge of a nervous breakdown. No question of “personal courage could be raised by anyone who had seen him battle,” observed one historian, but “responsibility it was that shattered his nerves.” At 2 p.m. on June 1, 1862, Jefferson Davis relieved Smith of his command and gave the assignment to Lee.


Handed a momentous assignment at a critical juncture in the greatest crisis of the American experiment, Gustavus Smith served as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for less than twenty-­four hours. Robert E. Lee, by contrast, would turn McClellan back from the gates of Richmond and subsequently lead the South’s biggest army brilliantly through the epic battles at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg until he reached his own mistaken go point at Gettysburg. For Lee, major decisions came readily, but for Smith they did not. When faced with consequential decisions, most people would prefer to be more like Lee than Smith, but the reality for many can be just the opposite.

So many individuals are so averse to making decisions, especially when they impact so many others, that clinical psychologists have even come up with a name for it–or rather two names for two related conditions: decidophobia and its close cousin hypengyophobia, an abnormal and persistent fear of responsibility. Save for the most natural of decision makers, most people have edged up against those clinical conditions at one time or another. Almost all have experienced that sinking feeling when a particularly vexing decision is finally reached after days or even months of circling the issue.

For most, the natural business of making choices is hardly natural at all. But then again neither is speaking Arabic, designing airframes, or playing the tuba. All are learned skills, mastered through observation and practice, and honed by experience. So it is with decision making, too.

A Thousand Emergencies

Even the most seasoned decision makers report that it never gets easy. Unisys Corporation CEO James Unruh was speaking to one of my executive MBA groups at the Wharton School when a student asked about the experience of arriving in the morning at the corner office of a large corporation facing epic challenges. Unisys at the time—the mid-1990s—employed 40,000 people, down from 80,000 just a few years earlier. The first minutes of his workday at headquarters were delightful, Unruh said. The security guard and office assistant greeted him warmly, and nothing had defined his day so far except a cup of coffee and a morning newspaper.

But from that point on the CEO’s experience went steadily downhill. All the easier decisions at the company already had been made by his subordinates; only the intractable and wrenching issues were left for him to decide. Unruh’s senior staff members were soon traipsing through his office, laying on his desk one thorny decision after another that they had been unable to resolve themselves. The easy ones never bubbled up that high.

I obtained a similar taste of life on the other side of the executive’s desk when I visited Rick Rieder at his Lehman Brothers office. The chief of fixed-income trading, Rieder started his day with a relaxing breakfast in Lehman’s executive dining room high in its gleaming new headquarters on New York’s Seventh Avenue, just around the corner from Times Square. Sleek, modern, and richly appointed, the building had been acquired from Morgan Stanley soon after 9/11 when Morgan Stanley decided to disperse its workforce and sell the brand-new custom-built high-rise.

The dining room décor and breakfast service were exquisite, the conversation relaxed. But as Rieder rode the elevator down to his office floor, his morning descended with it. Rieder’s comfortable, glass-walled office oversees the trading floor, where 125 bond traders were already riveted on computer screens blinking buy and sell quotes while the traders took orders from customers around the world. It looked to be a productive and profitable day, but then Rieder took an early call from one of his senior managers, expecting it to be the usual update on some arcane development in the bond market. Not so. The manager announced that he was quitting that morning and going to work for a crosstown rival by afternoon. For Rieder, it stood to be a huge loss, though one that was maybe still reversible if he and Lehman acted quickly and decisively enough. His decision point clear, the stakes defined, Rieder began his workday by calling other executives at the bank, seeking help in talking a prized human asset out of resignation.

Todd Thomson, the former chief financial officer of Citigroup and now CEO of its Global Wealth Management division, says that his workday almost invariably starts with a host of tough decisions. “When I come to the office in the morning, I have a thousand emergencies” is how he characterized it. General Peter Pace, now chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the same of his arrival at the Pentagon in his previous post as vice chairman. Waiting on his desk every morning were dozens of overnight reports on potential terrorism. Pace’s task: to decide on a daily basis which warnings deserved his attention and which did not.

James Unruh, Rick Rieder, Todd Thomson, and Peter Pace all know the pain of decision making. They know what it is like to start each day faced with a multitude of crises, most with resonances and implications that reach far beyond the office. All four know that in the decision game, you have to play to win, and unlike Gustavus Smith, they thrive on the challenge rather than freeze in the face of it. We depend on such people to produce our technologies, grow our portfolios and defend our security. Their go points are, in a very real sense, our go points, too. Fortunately, despite the emergencies and pressures they personally confront every day, they have chosen to stay in the fray.

About the Author(s)

Michael Useem is professor of management and director of the Center for Leadership and Change at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and is author of The Go Point: When It’s Time to Decide (Random House/Crown Business, 2006) from which this article is derived.