February 23, 2022

A friend recently commented about how he’s not well-versed on Ukraine, doesn’t have the energy to become informed enough to form an opinion, but hopes that our leaders do a good job.

The situation is pretty tense in that part of the world. It’s causing tension over here. Tension has a way of spreading like a virus, so I hope our leaders do a good job too.

I mean, they’re experienced, right? Biden has been in politics for what… a jillion years, give or take? He’s seen his share of foreign policy successes and fiascos. I don’t know much about the folks in the Pentagon, but some of them are avid history buffs, right? They should know how to not repeat mistakes we’ve made in the past. They have experience. They’re educated.

But is this enough to do a good job?

If world history is any indication, then no. A lot of smart, educated, experienced people in positions of influence fail to do a good job.

And this is not just in politics. The folks who invested in Theranos weren’t dummies, and neither was Masayoshi Son, who invested $4.4 billion into WeWork in the company’s earliest stages. CEOs aren’t dumb either, but they tend to do things that cause more harm than is necessary. Microsoft under Steve Ballmer was not a happy place to work, according to pretty much everyone I know who worked there at the time. Morale was low, people were crying in their cars before walking into the office…. Ballmer went to Harvard. He made it into Stanford’s MBA program. He did a good job in many ways, but he also arguably made some serious mistakes.

Doing a good job has to do with more than being educated, experienced, or naturally gifted. Ultimately, you have to be good at making decisions. Decisions shape what happens to the company you run, the team you manage, the country you lead, the family you raise.

And yet according to scholars, skilled decision-making is not related to intelligence or experience. Apparently, you can be super smart, Mensa-level even, and still make dumb choices. This is because the skills required for making good decisions are not the same skills you need for scoring high on an IQ test. You can be an entrepreneur, a politician, or even a parent for many years, but if you can’t think through decisions well, then that experience won’t help you much.

Making good decisions means being aware of how the brain tricks us into using shortcuts that lead to bias. It means being sensitive to the influences of bandwagons, group think, or herd mentality. We don’t learn this stuff in school. We don’t even learn these things on the job. We’re required to make so many important decisions in our lives, choices that can even shape the course of history, but we’re not really taught how to do it.

We’re also not taught to evaluate how politicians make decisions when we decide whether to vote for them. We judge them on their experience. We feel affinity for those who are relatable or likeable. We vote for the folks who tell us their values are aligned with ours. But we don’t ask ourselves: how does this person make his or her choices? Do they shoot from the hip and go with their gut? Do they weigh pros and cons, but in a way that reeks of bias? Do they choose courses of action that will make them look good rather than choose what will actually do good? These are important things to know.

When I hire employees, I care more about understanding their decision-making process than I do their backgrounds. When I hire a handyman, I care more about how he thinks through problems than I care about his years on the job. Even when I look for the right doctor or dentist, it’s not their years of experience or their bedside manner that I care about. How they make choices is what I’m looking to learn.

Maybe we should all judge each other on how well we decide rather than on things that matter much less.

How to handle Russia’s posture toward Ukraine isn’t a minor decision. The stakes are high. We have a lot to lose if we get it wrong, and we may have a lot to gain if we get it right. These types of choices are also not easily reversible. I hope our leaders don’t just do their jobs well. I hope they make decisions well. I hope that the process they use isn’t mired in bias and social pressure.

I guess we’ll never really know because we’re not in the rooms where those decisions are made. But we are in our own rooms. We can get make our own choices better. And if we do, then in our own small ways, we can change the world.

That is all.

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