by John Baldoni

Leadership: All Decisions Have Consequences, and Can Become Life Lessons

Nov 28, 20067 mins
IT Leadership

Decisions have consequences, and sometimes become our most important life lessons, especially for leaders.

“OK, we go!” With those words, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, set in motion the largest air, water and land assault in history. His words were the culmination of years of planning and months of steady build-up of manpower and material. The decision was expected, but there was hesitancy, tension and drama till the very end. Already the invasion had been called off for the previous day. The weather over the Normandy coastline, the site of the invasion, was terrible—cold, rainy and accompanied by rough seas. While the tides were favorable for a landing, the weather was still not, but another postponement might tip off the Germans of the site and time of a location. With a prediction of favorable weather, however, Eisenhower drew upon all of his knowledge as well as his gut instinct and gave the order. As a result, June 6, 1944, will forever be known as D-Day, and the first day in the freeing of Europe from Nazi oppression.

Finding the Go Point Preparing for and issuing “make or break” decisions is a subject that Michael Useem explores in his brand new book, The Go Point. “Ultimately every decision,” writes Useem, “comes down to a go point—that decisive moment when the essential information has been gathered, the pros and cons are weighed and the time has come to get off the fence.” The purpose of a go point is not yes or no; the purpose is to decide. Decisions of consequence are what leaders are expected to make. And in this regard, Useem, a professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, offers some intriguing leadership insights that managers can and should consider when the stakes are high.

Maintain situational awareness. Decisions made on mountains above 26,000 feet require superhuman strength; the thin air and piercing cold make physical movement difficult, in particular when the weather changes or a climber become disoriented. Such a situation occurred on K2, second only in height to its neighbor Mount Everest. Wisely, climb commander Rodrigo Jordan stationed himself farther down the mountain where he could maintain situation awareness and direct rescue operations. When one summit climber did get into trouble, Jordan was able to direct appropriate manpower as well as make cool headed decisions. That’s a lesson that managers can learn; be close to the action, but not so close that you are overwhelmed by circumstance that you cannot make clear-headed decisions.

Devolve decision making. Good leaders, especially in business, understand that leadership is not a solo enterprise. Zhang Ruimin, CEO of Haier, learned this lesson when he was transforming the company from a state-owned venture near bankruptcy into China’s leading appliance maker. He created something the company calls, “mini mini corporations,” or MMCs. Their purpose, as Zhang says, is to “respond swiftly to the needs of their respective markets and win more customers by independent innovations.” This approach has enabled Haier to compete globally. Zhang, however, saves big decisions for himself. Pushing decision making is not “abdicating decision-making responsibility.” It is part of process that Useem calls building a support net that helps to gather input and “assigning the decision to the person best advantaged” to make the decision.

Restore integrity. Sometimes a leader has to clean up the mess of a predecessor. That’s the situation that Jack Krol found himself in when he was hired as the lead director of Tyco, the company that Dennis Kozlowski had built from next to nothing into a giant player and subsequently looted along the way. The task that Krol and CEO Ed Breen (who had recruited him to the board) faced was formidable. It involved restoring fiscal integrity, spinning off nearly 50 businesses and dismissing a “staggering 290 of 300 of Tyco’s top executives,” a move that sent a clear message that Tyco was building a new culture—one based on integrity and not personal enrichment.

Learning from What Goes Wrong

Some decisions go tragically wrong. A prime example, as Useem narrates, was Robert E. Lee’s decision to order Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Confederate forces had battled the Union troops to a standstill but the Yankees still held the high ground, and had thus far thwarted the Rebel incursion into the North. Lee, a daring general and a reasonably good strategist, decided to gamble and attacked what he perceived to be a weak point in the Union lines. It was not, and that hot afternoon of July 3 saw waves of Southerners go to their graves under the orders of their commander, a man they worshipped as godlike till their dying day. When Lee ordered George Pickett to prepare for a counter assault, Pickett exclaimed, “General, I have no division.” It was a slaughter, and sent Confederate forces back to Virginia never again to threaten Union territory.

Bad decisions, however, need not be tragedies. They can be learning opportunities. Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, used mission failure to Mars as one such opportunity. Faced with the resignation of two senior managers responsible for the failed mission, Elachi replied, “We have spent $400 million training you. You have to learn from those mistakes, and I am sure you will not repeat them.” As Useem points out; they did. In 2004 those same managers were responsible for heading two successful robotic explorations of the Red Planet.

Decision making from a leadership perspective is not a cut-and-dried proposition. Some leaders will rely on data; others will go on instinct. Many more will go with a combination of the two. Ultimately to go or not go depends upon experience, knowledge and understanding of the situation as well as the human condition. And another factor comes into play—personal courage. Don Mackey was the on-site fire commander on Storm King Mountain in the summer of 1994. When a fire he and his team of smokejumpers had been fighting suddenly became unpredictable and uncontrollable, Mackey ordered everyone out of the canyon but himself. He stayed behind to bring others to safety.

Fourteen perished that day, including Mackey, but six more owed their lives to his personal intervention. Fortunately, all was not lost on Storm King; study of what happened on that mountain has led firefighters worldwide to adopt and implement new methods of battling forest fires that have reduced fatalities in this most dangerous of jobs. Decisions have consequences, yes, and sometimes become our most important life lessons, especially for leaders.

Sources: All quotes and facts (save for the Eisenhower story) come from The Go Point by Michael Useem. Crown Business 2006. Order of citation is as follows: p. 19 (the go point); pp. 162-169 (K2 story); pp. 106-108 (Haier); pp. 182-187 (Tyco); pp. 135-139 (Pickett’s Charge); pp. 217-18 (JPL); pp. 40-51 (Storm King). For more on The Go Point, visit The site contains insights and exercises derived from the book that decision makers will find valuable.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results (McGraw-Hill). Readers are welcome to visit his leadership resource website at