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Leadership and Changing Your Mind

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in The Next Level

Soldier-afghan

In the early morning on September 8, I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I read a little bit of news and among the stories were a number on the presidential elections in Afghanistan and the early indications of widespread voting fraud. The other main story around Afghanistan that evening was the appointment of General McChrystal as the new U.S. Commander. He was named to come up with and implement a  new plan. I’ll blame it on the semi-conscious state of being up in the middle of the night, but after my reading, I logged onto Twitter and posted the following haiku:
New team and new plan.
Wish them luck. They'll need it since
Karzai stole the votes.
As reported in the New York Times this week, President Obama is now considering a change in the plan for Afghanistan that he committed to six months ago.  According to the Times’ report, a worsening situation on the ground, the fiasco of the Afghan elections and a dire assessment of the future from General McChrystal have prompted a series of debates among Obama, the vice president, the secretaries of State and Defense, the national security advisor and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on what to do next. The options being discussed range from a significant increase in troops to a reduction in forces.  Along with the debate on options comes a debate on whether the objective of the mission is nation building, controlling Al Qaeda, some combination of the two or something in between.

My point in this post is not to rehash the headlines but to consider  the process of how a leader changes his or her mind on a very visible and important decision. It’s pretty much guaranteed that no matter what Obama eventually decides to do he will be loudly criticized for the decision from one quarter or another. It’s tough to go back on a high stakes decision even if the situation has changed so much that the original objectives are no longer in play. That’s probably what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith had in mind when he said “In the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.”

What about you? When have you had to reverse a major decision? What process did you go through in evaluating whether or not to change course? If you were advising Obama, what questions, factors or criteria would you encourage him to consider as he considers a change in direction?

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