Wolfowitz on Decision-Making

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In this summer’s Atlanitc has an article describing a series of interviews that Mark Bowden held with Paul Wolfowitz from September 2004 to April 2005, before the American deputy secretary of defense took his new job heading the World Bank. Wolfowitz is a fascinating thinker, regardless of whether or not you agree with his politics of conservative realism.

For the most part, Bowden records Wolfowitz’s comments on the war in Iraq, which of course held most of his attention. But Wolfowitz ranges, and includes a comment that illustrates how personality comes into play with the global organizational design principles of worklevels.

Wolfowitz is widely regarded as being the equal of his old boss, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Both of these men have been estimated as being a worklevel larger than President George W. Bush, their ultimate boss. In this light, his comments are interesting:

“Since you are going to be leaving your position and heading on after this tumultuous four or five years,” I said, “how certain do you feel when you make these decisions?”

“Fortunately, I don’t have to make the decisions,” Wolfowitz replied. “I give advice to people who do.”

“But how certain do you feel that you are right?”

“I think someone once said that decision-making is usually trying to choose the least crappy of the various alternatives. It does seem to me that so many things we have to decide are fifty-five—forty-five decisions, or sixty—forty decisions. Arrogance is one of the worst failings in a senior decision-maker. I really admire people like President Bush and Harry Truman, who were good at it. Dean Acheson said about Truman that he was free of that most crippling of emotions, regret. Once he made a decision, he moved on. And I think that’s what characterizes really good decision-makers. I think this president is one. He accepts the fact that if he’s batting six hundred, he’s doing pretty well. I was in the Oval Office the day he signed the executive order to invade Iraq, and I know how painful that was. He actually went out in the Rose Garden just to be alone for a little while. It’s hard to imagine how hard that was. And of course you can’t be sure, maybe ten years from now or five years from now, how it will look. We still don’t know how it will turn out, so you can’t possibly be sure you were right.

I still think it was right. I’d advise it all over again if I had to. There is this sort of intellectual notion that there is such a thing as perfect knowledge, and you wait to get perfect knowledge before you make a decision. In the first place, even if there were perfect knowledge, it would be too late by the time you got it. And secondly, there is no such thing. Accepting the imperfection of knowledge is a very important part of being a great decision-maker. I’m not. I understand the process intellectually, less so emotionally. I feel a lot more comfortable about any decision I make if I feel like I have thought through all the arguments—even if at the end of the day there is not a mathematical formula that tells you which one is right. But at least you won’t discover a factor you hadn’t even considered.

“A fundamental flaw in the 9/11 report, absolutely fundamental, is that it assumes that if we had had perfect intelligence, we could have prevented the attacks. Therefore what we need is perfect intelligence. Instead of recognizing that you’ll never have perfect intelligence, which takes you down an entirely different policy route.”

[pp. 120]

Wolfowitz is not a man who lacks the ability to make decisions: leading the World Bank is a difficult job requiring some hard decisions to be made about controversial subjects. The Bank is a collection of experts from across the globe who bring a variety of cultural references with them to their jobs, making the job of the head heavy on multi-cultural workforce management.

So this raises some questions.

  1. Can you successfully work with an advisor who is a size larger than you are, tiularly your employee? This seems akin to “selling down”, as when a Level 4 salesman tries to sell a system to a Level 3 buyer. It’s difficult and danger lurks constantly, an entirely unstable system. But it can be done.
  2. What are the personality traits that make a good political leader vs. simply a leader? Political leadership is quite different from spiritual leadership or even business leadership, although it has tones of both. (See Garry Wills excellent Certain Trumpets : The Call of Leaders on how there is no abstract leadership.) Wolfowitz implies that he could not have made the hard decisions to invade Iraq.
  3. Is there a personality type (on top of the level complexity of information processing) that makes a better leader than others? Let’s take for granted that you have to want the position. I’m interested in decision making. Is indecisiveness a personality trait or a function of Stratum Level? Or both? What plays into it?

The common theory is that indecisive managers are created by personality, that decisiveness is a great leadership trait. But surely that’s not really true: think about people you know who were great at jumping the gun. Decision making is not one thing but like leadership, a set of things. It’s “look before you leap” while at the same time “he who hesitates is lost”.

Leadership is not decisiveness but making correct decisions most of the time, combined with the willingness to correct one’s decisions. Some of this is certainly personality, but not as much as we normally think. Not as much as I normally think. Leadership is an abstraction, but not at our level. It is an abstraction farther up, containing as it does various abstractions. An abstraction of abstractions.

Surely indecisiveness is a good sign (a sufficient but not necessary cause) that a leader is either too small for the role or not one size larger than his staff. Which leads us back to Pres. Bush (at Level 6) and his staff (many at Level 7). And how then does one explain Sec. Powell’s term in office?

Sec. Colin Powell also did an interview with the Atlantic a few months back. [Full interview at “A Conversation With Colin Powell“; article at “Adult Male Elephant Diplomacy“.] . It would be interesting to run a CIP coding on these two interviews.

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