The Missing Ingredient in Decision-Making Frameworks

No one knew how Napalm was going to behave in a real-world battle. It was clear from the scientific tests that this stuff was crazy. You couldn’t have invented a better flammable material if you tried.

The Allies in WWII used Napalm in Japan with devastating results. 67 cities were burned down over six months. By burned down, I mean 70%, 80%, or higher in destruction. Never in history did humans have the ability to cause so much damage in such a short amount of time. That would all change once again after the atomic bombs were dropped.

The use of Napalm and atomic bombs are still being debated today. We haven’t fully come to terms with the morality of these weapons and how their usage should be regulated. What we can say is that it took courage to use them. WWII was a horrible way for everyone involved and fought at a scale that nearly destroyed Europe.

It’s hard to fault leaders of both sides for the choices they made. Frameworks and other decision-making ideas are helpful, but they need a critical ingredient: courage. I see it all the time when working with clients. They know what the right decision is, but they lack enough courage to take it.

Missing Ingredient in Decision-Making: Courage

Saying that Margaret Thatcher was a controversial Prime Minister would be an understatement. She guided Britain through one of its toughest post-war periods and made consistent tough choices. She famously said that “we will stand on principle or we will not stand at all.” Courage seemed to be in excess supply in her world.

Margaret Thatcher focused on her principles and what she thought was right for the country. She didn’t let the protests or even a bombing attempt derail her. She stuck by her principles and made her decisions. Not all of them were right, but she moved in a direction. The moving aspect of decisions is quite important. It’s easier to redirect energy once it is in motion than if standing still. Thinking about trying to turn a car with no momentum versus while driving.

Decision-making models don’t usually talk about courage. They assume that once you have all the facts, you will make the right decision. It’s just a matter of going through a checklist and arriving at the final answer. In other words, making decisions is like math. You might have different ways of calculating a result, but the answer is always the same. 

I think this misses a huge portion of how decisions are actually made. Margaret Thatcher talked about how different philosophies shaped Britain and the United States. Britain (and Europe to an extent) were shaped by their history, while their philosophy shaped America. Europe was constrained to what was possible based on what happened to them, but Americans thought of what could be. Manifest destiny permeated all of American society.

In companies, we would call this culture. The culture shapes how decisions are made. Do you operate in a culture of fear when it comes to mistakes? Is your culture able to support failures? The more your culture allows for missteps, the less courage you need. The opposite is true. You need even more courage if your company’s culture frowns upon making the wrong bets. No checklist or framework can override bad culture.

Courage is the Father Invention

They say necessity is the mother of the invention, which means that courage must be the father. No place is this idea as clear as forest fires. There was a famous fire at Mann Gulch where firefighters arrived with the hope of taming it. The situation changed rapidly, and the firefighters found themselves surrounded by the fire. 13 of them died, but one of them survived using a crazy idea at the time.

He survived by deliberately burning a portion of grass in front of them. They were only ahead by a few minutes of the larger fire, but when it arrived, they were spared. Their last-minute grass burning tactic didn’t provide any fuel for the larger fire, as it turns out. Their action is now known as “escape fire.” You proactively burn a portion of the land, which gives you insulation from another fire.

The firefighters who survived had nothing to lose by trying the escape fire technique, but they needed courage. There was no time to run through a complex decision-making model and weigh the options. They had to act and hope that it worked. Lucky for us, we don’t typically have to make decisions within minutes of being burned by fire. We do need the courage to try things that may have no backing in the data, though. We may discover our own version of escape fire.

Courage is Only Rewarded in Hindsight

There are few moments in history that we could point and say, “this is where history happened.” The Diet of the Worms is one of those moments. Martin Luther had already caused controversy by criticizing the Catholic Church and its practice of indulgences. He further hurt his cause when he made it clear that he feared God’s judgment more than the men in front of him. 

Martin Luther wasn’t instantly rewarded for his actions. In fact, it would take years before the effects were truly felt. In that time, Martin Luther had to hide or otherwise risk being arrested and killed. We now understand the power of his words during the Diet of the Worms. Luther set the foundation for our idea of oneself and created a world where multiple religions could coexist. His courage was eventually rewarded, but it took years for that to take place.

The same applies to the decisions that you will face. We know we need courage but don’t expect to get instant gratification from it. Making the right decision might take months or years before it shows that you took the right step. Your courage may be unrewarded except in your own mind. You need your own metrics and principles for judging the usage of your courage. Hindsight may prove you right, but it will take time.

Frameworks for making decisions are fantastic. I created one called the 3 Os — which will be covered in detail in my second book in early 2022. However, courage is the glue that makes everything work. Like a muscle, you can train it and make it stronger. Do it for the right reasons and not because you will be rewarded. You may discover that courage will become commonplace in your life.

One more thing before you go!

I send a weekly newsletter called the Growth Needle. It's short, sweet, and full of interesting—and dare I say provocative—ideas. It's the best way to access my latest thinking and share your own thoughts. The next edition will be out on Tuesday, and you can receive it by subscribing below.

Want to see the goods before signing up? No problem! Here are a few of the recent editions: