Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I recently read an account of the apprehension of a criminal. The author criticized the actions of the police, noting they could have done this and they delayed in doing that. He neglected to mention, of course, the downside of alternatives and failed entirely to appreciate both the confusion and clarity of being there.

Let us favor the person who has to make decisions on the spot and who lacks the calm reflection of the critic who, tucked in a cozy study and armed with the knowledge of how things turned out, can toss darts and then draw a target around them.

Most decisions of any real consequence involve large amounts of confusion and flat-out ignorance. The choices are far from obvious and one thing after another that should happen doesn't. If an active opponent is present, then a hostile party is vigorously working to thwart your best efforts. Multiply that many times over and you can understand why a good general is akin to - and often faced with greater challenges than - a brain surgeon.

Some of the tendencies to second-guess the person who is in the field are due to what I call The James Bond Phenomenon; i.e., the belief that in first-rate operations everything clicks into place and all problems are anticipated and wonderful gadgets are available to dispense with any special difficulties. Those who've had to make such decisions know better. In the real world, the information is sparse, the timing is rapidly muddled, the component that was supposed to be in place has gotten lost, and the opposition just changed the rules.

Those who have to make the tough decisions know that while they might get credit if their actions are successful, they will almost certainly, in the guise of constructive criticism, be excoriated if they are not.

That is the price of leadership, but acknowledging its presence does not excuse critics who do not begin to understand leadership's challenges.


Anonymous said...

Cue the trumpets! Great post.

In addition to the James Bond phenomenon, you can count the "Riding Cowboy" phenomenon. That's where the hero, riding a horse at full gallop, shoots the pistol out of the bad guy's hand at 300 yards. It makes civilian review boards ask, "Why didn't you just wound him?"

Then there's CSI. The only thing that the TV CSIs have in common with the real thing is that some of the latter have Hummers. This leads to crime victims who are amazed that their residential burglary isn't likely to get solved.

I've spent the better part of my adult life working with supervisors in high risk occupations. The people they supervise make life and death decisions in seconds. There's no choice. It's the way it happens.

Then, after doing the best they can while under threat and pressure, the get subjected to the second guessers of the world.

Anonymous said...


You sound like you've run a contact center before.

Only failure is noticed - success is expected (and rarely acknowledged).

Snow storms, unplanned call drivers caused by people who don't have to take the calls and never thought about what it involves, technology failures, etc. be damned. Why didn't you hit service level?

I love this post.

Michael Wade said...

Wally and Anonymous,

I'm glad you liked it. When you've been in the position, you know what it's like to hear the second-guessers.