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A lesson In decision-making

Here is some presidential advice for decision-making.

4 min read


A lesson In decision-making

President Dwight Eisenhower and President-elect John F. Kenndy in 1960 (Sam Schulman/AFP via Getty Images)

Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were not friends, yet after the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation in early 1961, the two began to speak. Eisenhower’s administration had planned the invasion, which was executed under Kennedy’s watch.

According to historian Jon Meacham’s account in “Songs of America,” Ike asked, “Mr. President, before you approved this [plan for the invasion], did you have everybody in front of you debating the thing so you got the pros and cons yourself and then made the decision, or did you see these people one at time.” Kennedy demurred, saying he had just approved the plan, adding, “I just took their advice.”

Going forward, Kennedy asserted more control. He implemented ExComm (Executive Committee for the National Security Council) and was used to good effect during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. Kennedy was able to neutralize the over-aggressive tendencies of some like Gen. Curtis LeMay with the more moderate voices in his Cabinet. Nuclear war was averted.

Ike’s question to Kennedy is a good lesson for anyone in a leadership position. While leaders do make the ultimate decision, it is best to reserve that decision-making, when possible, after debate and deliberation. Every decision need not be debated — only those that have a significant impact on the organization. But if something is discussed, here are some ground rules.

  • Convene the experts. Get the people who know the most about the issue in the same room. Give them advance notice of what will be discussed and have them prepare their arguments based on facts and their experience.
  • Set ground rules. Most importantly, make it clear that the purpose of the meeting is to consider the issues and debate it. Focus energy on the facts, not on others. Easy to say, but when one or more people in the room may be rivals and vying for an advantage with the boss, the senior person in the move must keep the discussion focused on and point.
  • Decide. Oftentimes leaders will ask people for their recommendations. Leaders will make it clear that the final decision lies with them due to their position. Let people know what is decided in a timely fashion. Failure to do so leaving people hanging and the organization in stasis. 

After debate and deliberation, keep individuals in the loop. Let them know the impact of the decision and how it is being received. Be available to listen to further suggestions, but hold fast to the decision to give it time to take effect. Changes can be made later.

Time and delegation

The debate and deliberation approach only works when there is time. If there is the proverbial burning platform, alacrity will dictate immediate responses that only the leader can deliver in a timely manner. And overdoing the debate and deliberation is no cause for cheer; it bogs down the entire decision-making process and contributes to paralysis by analysis.

Additionally, leaders need to push decision-making to all levels of the organization. This approach enables the leader to focus on significant issues and delegates responsibility throughout the organization, a factor that contributes to shared ownership. It also improves productivity because executives need not look over their shoulders; they make decisions for their level and move forward.

Meetings about significant issues are essential. Their usefulness depends upon a willingness to commit to a process and to respect for others.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2019, Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including“MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.” Learn more about why he wrote “GRACE” in this short video.

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