I’ve always been attuned to and intrigued by the moments in history and in our organizations where fateful decisions hang in the balance promising to change everything. These are moments when the drama is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Everyone involved recognizes the gravity of the pending decision, yet often there’s one individual with the courage to say “Yes” or “No.” (Sometimes that person isn’t at the top of the organizational chart.) The choice at that moment opens one new timeline and closes another. In all cases, the final costs or consequences remain unknown, yet the decision gives way to action.

The Decision to Change the World on D-Day

History is filled with these critical moments where decisions knowingly and unknowingly change the fate of many. As of this writing/editing, leaders, veterans, and grateful civilians of the former Allied Powers from World War II are gathering on beaches and in cemeteries to commemorate that fateful day when the decision was made to act on the plans for reclaiming Europe from Hitler.

One of the most profound decisions for the gravity of the situation was then General Eisenhower’s lonely (world and life-changing) call to launch the D-Day assault in World War II.Image of General Eisenhower addressing soldiers

Try and imagine the crushing weight of the call to send the collective might of the Allied forces into the fog for an uphill (literally) fight that everyone knew would prove deadly for many. While preparations, including a massive attempt at deception, had been underway for some time, there was still a final decision to “go” with the weather playing an important role. The fog and clouds on that day likely would impede aircraft bombing and lead to an increased loss of life.

With the weather working against the invasion plans and his advisors split on the decision, Eisenhower is reported to have stared out the window into the mission-threatening fog, eventually offering the world-changing words, “OK, we’ll go.

(Note: there’s some controversy over the exact words uttered by Eisenhower at that moment. Even he couldn’t recall precisely what he said, but most sources have settled on some close variation of the above.)

These three words changed the timelines for nations and for the soldiers who gave their lives on that and subsequent days and months. The effects of those three words ripple through to today for those of us who sit here awestruck at the courage it must have taken to make that decision and even more so for the courage it took the soldiers to disembark from landing craft on the beaches or parachute into the face of hell on earth.

Another Split Second Decision Holds a Country Together

Eighty years earlier than D-Day, the American Civil War and unity of the country may ultimately have swung on one brave college teacher from Maine turned colonel and his split-second decision to do something seemingly implausible and without hope of success.

As part of the backstory, consider that General Lee knew a victory for his troops at Gettysburg might be a tipping point in the Union’s resolve and lead to a negotiated settlement. He threw everything he had into this battle, and it all came down to one split-second decision by Joshua Chamberlain.

As in all aspects of history, there’s debate over specifics, but it was clear that Joshua Chamberlain and his troops understood they were the extreme left line of defense at Gettysburg. They were also woefully short on ammunition as they attempted to fend off the repeated charges of an equally motivated adversary. If Chamberlain’s line broke, it would have been disastrous for the Union Army still reeling from the first day of this horrific battle.

With Chamberlain’s troops running out of ammunition and serving as the last barrier to disaster, Chamberlain described the decision at the moment as: “At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.

His decision and order to “Fix bayonets!” and his subsequent downhill charge in the face of a surging, shooting opposition force was counterintuitive, shocking to the opposition, and against the odds, it worked. They held the line, captured prisoners, and prevented a disastrous defeat for the Union.

The timeline potentially changes in very different ways if “Fix bayonets!” is never ordered.

Weighty Decisions in the Workplace are Mostly Never About Consensus

The crucial calls in our organizations are always about direction (strategy) or people. Or both.

And while a great deal of time is invested in the pursuit of consensus, I’ve always viewed consensus as the tyranny of mediocrity. Groups often water-down decisions in a drive to appease all viewpoints. In theory, a group should be able to make a better decision than the smartest individual. That theory is nice until reality, biases, politics, and all manner of filters rise and join the process, particularly in moments where speed is of the essence.

Humans are messy decision-makers. Humans in groups are potentially disastrous decision-makers. This reality doesn’t mean you should give up on collaborating on the tough topics. It just means there will come a time when a big decision doesn’t bend to consensus.

The Big Decision is Often a Lonely, Solo Activity

Eisenhower had the benefit of many great minds and trusted advisors, yet there was no consensus. In Joshua Chamberlin’s case, he had just one goal in mind: “Hold the line at all costs.” Both were profoundly lonely decisions where driving for consensus was either impractical or impossible.

Our workplace decisions as leaders are significantly less impactful than the fate of the world, the preservation of a union, and the lives of tens of thousands on a single day. Nonetheless, these decisions on direction, strategy, and people are profoundly lonely and essential to the many stakeholders in the situation.

  • Choose the right strategy and match it with the right people and you prosper.
  • Say “no” to that attractive opportunity that doesn’t feel right, and maybe you avoid opening Pandora’s Box on your organization.
  • Hire that candidate no one else believed was a “fit” for your culture, and you might transform your firm’s culture for the better.
  • Pick the right person, not the senior person to lead that strategic project in the face of withering criticism, and watch the team come together and succeed.

The Problem(s) in These Moments

The struggle over the big decisions is the inherent ambiguity. The unknowns are overwhelming. Fear of getting it wrong floods our minds and our brains struggle for traction in the muck.

For the most significant decisions in our lives and careers, the outcomes are unknown and the consequences unpredictable. While we spend an incredible amount of time and money and dance with data-driven decisions, there are no sure things. Layer on top of that reality that humans make decisions based on emotions, not logic, and you’ve got a witches brew of potential for misfiring. Nonetheless, someone has to decide.

Why Not You? Stand Up and Be Present In the Moment

In my ongoing pursuit of insight into how others make the big decisions, there’s no precise formula beyond what one CEO described to me as: “I knew a no-decision outcome was the one thing we couldn’t afford in this situation.

In a different situation, a senior manager described to me, “Someone had to make the call. I believed in a direction to my core. All of my experience and logic and emotion said: “go this way.” While everyone else was running for cover from getting this wrong, I had to stand up and decide.

Another offered, “The political cost of getting this wrong was too high for many to back it. The real cost of not doing this was too costly for the future of the organization to not take the risk. I decided to incur the political risk for the benefit of the organization.

And while many wish they might get a list of “X Things for Making Tough Decisions” out of this article, this topic doesn’t reduce to that trivial level. Just know that you will face a point in your career where everything you’ve done to date was merely preparation for what’s in front of you. Remind yourself of this point, recognize the moment,  and stand-up and decide.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Ultimately, the big decisions we make in our lives and careers prompt tidal waves of implications—intended and unintended, with the ripple effects continuing across time. The important thing is to recognize the moment for its importance, and then to be present and be heard at the moment. “OK, we’ll go,” is just fine.

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