Thursday, January 15, 2009

There is a Difference Between Doubt and Regret

Bob Woodard has a 10 point list of don'ts for President Obama. Some of them are probably good lessons for a leader, such as making sure you get candid advice from your advisors, even from junior advisors.

But I would like to address this one:
During a December 2003 interview with Bush, I read to him a quote from his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, about the experience of receiving letters from family members of slain soldiers who had written that they hated him. "And don't believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters like that, they don't suffer any doubt," Blair had said.

"Yeah," Bush replied. "I haven't suffered doubt."

"Is that right?" I asked. "Not at all?"

"No," he said.

Presidents and generals don't have to live on doubt. But they should learn to love it. "You should not be the parrot on the secretary's shoulder," said Marine Gen. James Jones, Obama's incoming national security adviser, to his old friend Gen. Peter Pace, who was then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- a group Jones thought had been "systematically emasculated by Rumsfeld." Doubt is not the enemy of good policy; it can help leaders evaluate alternatives, handle big decisions and later make course corrections if necessary.
The way Woodward paints Bush here is that Bush lacks any heart, lacks compassion and that is not the case. There is a vast difference between doubt and regret.

In reality what Blair is talking about is regrets. Does a president regret sending soldiers into harm's way, many of whom return in a flag drapped coffin? Yes. Only a cold heart would deny that. Remember, too, that while many families of fallen soldiers may hate Bush, not everyone family feels that way.

At the Presidential level, indeed on any level of leadership, decisions are made with imperfect information and once a decision is made you can't doubt that decision. A leader needs skeptics to help point out flaws before a decision is made and to point out corrective actions that are needed. So a leader doesn't need parrots and yes men around, but neither does he need someone who is simply casting doubt to be casting doubt.

I believe a leader should have people around him or her, giving advice from a skeptics view, even having a designated "devil's advocate" is a good thing. However, I don't thing a leader should doubt a decision he has made.

A leader must make decisions with imperfect information and be comfortable doing that. A leader must be willing to make corrections as he goes along and understand that he won't get it right every time. But the worst thing in a leader is indecision and paralysis by analysis. Make a decision, and move on. There is no time to doubt because the next decision is upon you in a flash.

There is time for regret, but regret is not doubt. You can regret a decision after the fact, but you do not doubt any decision you made, doing so makes you gun shy to make decisions in the first place.

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