Indecision is a decision

  • Published
  • By Albert Woolley III
  • 460th Force Support Squadron
I think we have all experienced the uncomfortable effects of indecision in our lives. A couple common examples that come to my mind are going to a restaurant with a group of people and opening a menu that has a lot of delicious dishes to choose from. The server comes and asks your group for their orders and you find that when it is your turn to order everyone is waiting on you and you can't make a decision. Do I order something just to move the lunch along or do I ask for more time? For the sports players, you are in a baseball game occupying second base. The batter hits the ball to center field. Do you run for third or hold? In each of these cases, indecision is not your friend. Worst case you order a lunch dish you really didn't want or you look silly getting caught between second base and third, only to be thrown out in front of a crowd of spectators.

As you can see, indecision in your everyday life can bring negative consequences. Indecision for leaders in the military can be disastrous.

Bill Benson, a historian, reported Custer's indecision lead to his downfall.

"Early on Sunday morning, June 25, 1876, Custer of the 7th Cavalry was on the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn River, when he received his scouts' report that the Plains Indians were situated on the west side of the Little Big Horn, north and west of his current location. Custer decided to attack, and divided his army into three units. Maj. Marcus A. Reno attacked the south end of the Indian camp, but when Reno saw the size of the camp, he decided not to continue his attack, when he was only a quarter of a mile from the village. A mistake. He and his troops retreated to a grove of timber, but panic-stricken, his 112 soldiers then bolted from the woods' protection, crossed the Little Big Horn, and sought refuge upon a bluff. The Cheyenne later [said]... they thought the white soldiers' behavior was bizarre. "We could never understand why the soldiers left the timber, for if they had stayed there, the Indians could not have killed them." More than 40 soldiers were killed. Frederick Benteen, captain of Custer's second unit, arrived on the bluffs just as Reno's men were scaling them. Benteen asked Reno, "Where is Custer?" But Reno did not know. Custer had led the third unit himself, five miles to the north hoping to flank the entire Indian camp in a surprise attack. Suddenly, Custer too saw the immensity of the village, between 10,000 and 12,000 Indians, of which some three thousand were warriors. Custer chose not to attack. A mistake. But the Indian warriors, led by the chiefs Gall, Crazy Horse and Two Moon, recognized Custer's indecision and attacked. Years later, the Cheyenne warriors who fought there that day admitted "That if Reno and Custer had kept on and charged through the village [from] opposite ends, the Indians would have scattered. Custer's indecision helped lead to his downfall..."" At the end of the day, on June 25, 1876, General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry lost 265 men killed and 52 wounded.1

Great leaders are great decision makers. Great leaders do not allow themselves to be seen as unclear or uncertain. Leaders have to make difficult decisions. Do I discipline an employee? Do I let the employee go, or do I move an employee? Great leaders balance emotion with reason to make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization. Great leaders know when to make decisions quickly with the information at hand. When leaders do wait for more information, they know when to stop seeking more information. Too much data can be paralyzing and cause a leader to make no decision at all. This discussion will touch on three crucial areas that leaders must develop in order to become great decision makers, which includes emotional intelligence, the ability to handle uncertainty and the ability to weigh evidence with intuition. 2

Leaders must have emotional intelligence and the ability to understand oneself and the emotions of others. Emotional self-control is extremely important in making great decisions. When we become overwhelmed with a critical high stakes situation that poses a significant potential downside that requires immediate decision making, we can have emotional reactions that include feelings of anxiety, fear or anger. These emotions can cloud our decision making. This is why it is so important to have emotional self-control. We can conquer these unhelpful emotions by accepting the emotional reactions, regaining emotional control and then making smart decisions. 2

In decision making, variables in outcomes are often uncertain and can cause analysis paralysis. We often want to analyze problems from every angle to eliminate the uncertainty. This process is often a waste of valuable time and energy because we often have to make decisions in an uncertain environment. We can become paralyzed by uncertainty and base decisions on things that are not even related or relevant. The trick to making good decisions in the face of uncertainty is to accept the uncertainty and focus energy, time and resources on making the best decisions in spite of uncertain outcomes. This is not to say that we should not do proper analysis, rather it is to highlight the need to know when enough analysis has been conducted and to stop. Sometimes uncertainty is not resolvable...accept the uncertainty and move on. 2

A mistake that we often make in decision making is to give ourselves too many options. We do this because we believe that if we consider all the alternatives we will make the best decisions. We try to resolve every uncertainty, only to get overwhelmed and make no decision at all. Try to limit options to no more than 5 and you will find decision making more manageable. 2

Great decision makers will rely on gut intuition to make decisions. They are able to trust themselves and their subject matter experience to ensure they are not overthinking a problem. The more you know about a subject the more reliable your intuition will be. We often do not develop the skill of listening to the quiet voice that resides in us all. We miss out on the opportunity to listen to our own thinking and feelings. Often answers to problems are not right or wrong. It is in these situations that listening to intuition can be most helpful. 2

Try this process to make great decisions given the many variables that will come into play and create uncertainty:

1. Decide whether to take action quickly or gather additional information. If you gather more information, decide when enough is enough and stop.
2. Be aware of your emotions and accept them...don't allow them to control your decision making.
3. Recognize the uncertainty and determine how much needs to be resolved...accept the uncertainty and proceed forward.
4. Listen to your intuition and do not overthink important decisions.
5. Make challenging decisions....recognize that even "negative" outcomes may be better than expected and produce opportunities....gain confidence in making great decisions. 2

Indecision is a decision and great leaders make great decisions. Indecision in our regular lives can have negative consequences and indecision for military leaders can be disastrous as Custer has shown. Uncertainty often causes indecisiveness. This can be overcome by developing emotional intelligence, the ability to handle uncertainty and the ability to weigh evidence with intuition. Practice great decision making and become a great leader!

Editor's Notes
1. Benson, Bill, Opinions "South Platte Sentinel" Wednesday, (June 24, 2009); Page 8
2. Kase, Larina, PsyD, MBA, "Great Leaders are Great Decision-Maker," (2010 Volume 13 Issue 4);