By Marc Revere
Published Sunday, September 2, 2012
In 1961, three months after President Kennedy took office, he was faced with his first real challenge as president. It was known as the Bay of Pigs; it was also known as a fiasco. The failed Cuban invasion severely embarrassed the Kennedy administration. In a State Department press conference following the incident, President Kennedy said, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. What matters is only one fact: I am the responsible officer of the government.”
Kennedy took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs disaster; equally important, he learned from his failure—and we can too. This incident provides a fascinating lesson in decision-making.
A Bit of History
The Bay of Pigs invasion, which was planned before Kennedy came into office, confronted the new president with a go/no-go decision. There were no other options presented, and worse yet, none were sought out by the new president and/or his staff.
Also complicating matters, the planners were all personally invested in the event. The president did not have an objective, non-biased view. Rather, “groupthink”—a phenomenon later identified by Yale Professor Irving Janis—took over. No one questioned the facts and assumptions of the decision-making process. Groupthink is a mode of thought that allows for harmony in decision-making, which in turn overrides the appraisal of alternatives. Janis’ own definition: “preventing contradictory views from being expressed and then eventually evaluated.”
In the aftermath, Kennedy commented to a friend, “The first advice I am going to give my successor is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”
Sixteen months later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis—most likely Kennedy’s finest hour—he did exactly that. For 13 days in October, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. But Kennedy, faced with a far more complex problem than the Bay of Pigs, was able to navigate through both internal and external pressures to reach a peaceful resolution. It is an amazing example of adaptive leadership while minimizing groupthink.
So what happened in the 16 months that ensued between both events? Introspection, reflection and personal growth, and most importantly, the understanding of the importance of asking the right questions, challenging assumptions and deciding how to decide.
Contrasting the Bay of Pigs with the Cubin Missile Crisis, the president created and insisted on an inclusive environment, one that encouraged questioning of every aspect of the impending crisis and the available options. In fact, he insisted on not having meetings at the White House so that there could be a more informal environment open to spirited dialog. He insisted on one or more members playing the devil’s advocate, rewarded counter opinions, and made sure that groupthink did not take over. He purposely did not attend most meetings to avoid unduly influencing outcomes.
In the end, the crisis provided the foundation for adaptive leadership, a model and a pathway to guide us where no policy and procedure exist.
How Decisions Are Made
Understanding how we arrive at solutions necessitates understanding how we make decisions. There are two levels of decision-making:
- Level-1 decision-making is effortless; it is intuitive, fast, automatic, implicit and sometimes emotional (i.e., tactical).
- Level-2 decision-making requires effort; it is slow, conscious, explicit and logical (i.e., strategic). It includes assessments of the pros and cons and possible short- and long-term consequences.
In our profession, there is an overarching sense of urgency related to life safety, which pervades and influences our decision-making mode, even in non-emergency events. On the fireground, where Level-1 decision-making must and does take over, well-honed decision models such as RESCEO, our standard operating procedures and NIMS make up for our inability to apply Level-2 decision-making. But such models don’t really help when we are dealing with the majority of our non-emergency responses: budgetary, political and personnel issues.
With Level-2 (non-life threatening) decisions, you may want to consider using a template to identify the issue clearly by asking the following questions:
- Whose issue is it?
- Whom does the issue affect?
- Who needs to be involved in the resolution of the issue?
- Who will be affected by the potential solutions?
- What are the consequences of the solution?
- What are the values involved?
Then identify whether you have a technical problem with a technical solution, or something altogether different by asking the following:
- Do policies or procedures exist?
- Am I navigating uncharted waters?
- Are we experiencing the known, or are we in the realm of the unknown?
- Is this “out of the slide tray?”
- Is there know-how or current answers?
If the answer is yes to any of the above, then you may have an “adaptive challenge.” In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky identify several indicators that you’re dealing with an adaptive challenge:
- You recognize that people’s hearts and minds need to change—not just their preferences or routine behaviors.
- You have thrown all fixes and know-how at the problem, and it persists.
- Conflict between team members exists.
- A crisis continues long term.
Confronting Adaptive Challenges
When the rules don’t apply, you must adapt your decision-making process accordingly. There are two models that can greatly assist fire service leaders in this process.
DECIDE is an anagram, developed by Dr. Ludwig Benner, and is detailed in the IAFC’s Crew Resource Management manual:
- Determine the problem.
- Evaluate the scope of the problem.
- Consider available options.
- Identify the most appropriate option.
- Do the most appropriate option.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of actions.
NFA 7-Step Decision-Making Model
The National Fire Academy’s 7-Step Decision-Making model is similar to the DECIDE method and provides an alternative way to move through the decision-making process:
- Problem Definition
- Idea Generation
- Idea Evaluation
- Action Planning
Slow Down & Encourage Dissent
Even after framing the issue at hand utilizing the above questions and methods, however, leaders may still struggle. Subordinates expect people at the top to have the answers. Compounding the problem, managers and leaders often believe that they need to make quick decisions even though they may not have all of the information.
This is especially true in the fire service, where on the fireground, incident commanders routinely make quick decisions with limited information. As a result, chief officers may feel that they need to make non-emergency decisions the same way. These assumptions are false. The prominent style in one specific area needs to be tempered in non-emergency issues.
In order to counter this, the leader must create an environment of inquiry, granting others the permission to ask questions. They must be willing to have a “courageous conversation” surrounding the subject or topic at hand. The model depicted here (see image), designed by Chief Forrest Craig and me, can help leaders avoid groupthink, while identifying the best possible outcome for any specific problem.
How Did He Learn It?
I believe Kennedy was acutely aware after the Bay of Pigs that his decision-making model needed to adapt. The question is, where did he get his insight? From the experience of failure, of course, but also from an inquiry and an interesting observation.
A little known fact: Kennedy sought out former President Eisenhower’s advice and assessment on how he handled the Bay of Pigs. Eisenhower did not offer advice, but rather asked Kennedy an insightful question, “How did you obtain your information to make your decision regarding the invasion?”
History will note that Eisenhower, who was a war hero, was not considered a brilliant strategist or military tactician, nor did he have any combat experience. Montgomery, Patton and Bradley were experienced and great tacticians. However, Eisenhower alone possessed the leadership qualities necessary to bring political and military egos together to win the war.
Eisenhower’s career and Kennedy’s presidency reinforce Jack Welch’s comment, “Leaders are not just born, they are made.” The lesson: Students of leadership eventually become the leaders; and the right person at the right time doesn’t happen by accident, it is by design.
This knowledge will greatly assist decision-makers, while prepping them to be exceptional leaders. As Kennedy learned, deciding how to decide was more important than the decision itself.
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story