Hard Call Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2007 John McCain and Marshall Salter
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-446-58040-3
Naval aviators claim to have invented the term "situational awareness" to describe an aviator's comprehension of the tactical situation he encounters when flying a mission- how well he keeps track of everything that is happening or likely to happen around him. Where is he in formation? Where is the ground? How close is he to the target? What's his fuel level? How is his aircraft performing? Are his avionics functioning correctly? Are weather conditions hampering the operation and increasing its risks? Where is the enemy, or where is he likely to be? What are the scope, location, and range of the enemy's air defenses? Is he evaluating new information he perceives or that is communicated to him and altering his expectations accordingly? These are but a few of the scores of variables he must keep track of to increase the likelihood of his mission's success.
There are more subjective judgments involved in the decisions he must make during his mission. How good a pilot is he? How good are the other pilots in his squadron? How experienced are they? How fatigued? How good is the enemy? How experienced? How stressed? What personality attributes of his or his squadron mates might affect his judgment? Is he steady under pressure? Are they? Is he brave enough? Does flying seem natural to him, or is it a complex and exacting chore that makes him anxious and distracts him from the achievement of his mission? Is he the overconfident type? Do the other fliers' reactions to the situation, the weaknesses and strengths of their personalities, cause him to take risks he shouldn't or to elude his responsibilities? Is he so gung ho or so flushed with adrenaline that he is heedless of increasing danger? Is he the type who, when he hears the tone that warns him the enemy's weapon system has locked onto him, keeps barreling in on his target, or does he take immediate evasive maneuvers? He must understand and try to compensate for all these variables as he makes decisions that will affect the outcome of the mission and, perhaps, determine whether he lives or dies.
That's what they taught me in aviation school anyway. And personal experiences reinforced the lesson. On my last combat mission in Vietnam, having survived several mishaps that could have but did not cost me my life, I wasn't as acutely aware of the danger to my own well-being that the mission entailed. Instead of interpreting my previous experiences as evidence that things can and often will go wrong when flying, particularly in dangerous and stressful conditions-an awareness that should have made me more heedful of the danger-I had developed a false sense of my own invulnerability. And that characteristic of my ego, which I felt no need to check, discounted the danger I personally faced. I placed too much faith on what was beyond my knowledge or control: luck. And my luck ran out that day. When I heard the warning tone that an enemy SAM battery had locked onto me, I was moments away from dropping my bombs on target. I thought I had enough time to do my job and still evade the missile I knew would probably be coming my way. I also allowed my desire to get the hell away from Hanoi, which, thanks to Soviet assistance, had become the most heavily air-defended city in history, to encourage me to strike first and evade second. I didn't want to come back for a second run. I had five and a half very long years to regret my decision and the lapse in self-awareness that prevented me from recognizing the cockiness that had blinded me to one of the immutable principles of war and life: luck is unreliable.
Obviously, not every important decision involves stakes that are so consequential. But gaining the most acute awareness of both the objective and subjective circumstances in which you make a decision, in the time allotted for making it, increases the quality of every decision. The first question you need to answer is: What are the stakes involved? What is at risk and how much is it at risk by your decision? If the stakes are grave-life or death, the success or failure of an important enterprise, the well-being or peril of a loved one-you will proceed cautiously and expend every effort and every last second to gather relevant information before you decide. If your object would be irretrievably lost by the wrong decision, you will feel that burden even more. If the stakes are not so grave, or if you know you will have time to compensate for a bad decision, then you might have the space to consider bolder action-one that might carry a greater risk of failure but will achieve more significant success if it proves to be right. Of course, sometimes circumstances are so dire that only a bold decision can rescue you from them. If that's the case, good luck. You're going to need a lot of it, and a lot of courage. Perhaps you are not required to make any decision at all but have glimpsed an opportunity to advance a particular interest. Do you know what it could cost you? Is it worth the risk? Are you confident you understand the environment, so that your gamble is more than an expression of your desires, that it has a decent chance to succeed?
Time is the second consideration. When does the problem become unsolvable? When will the opportunity pass? Will you have another opportunity to recover from the wrong decision? What is the last moment you have to decide, and do the chances of success diminish or increase by waiting? Is patience a virtue or a risk? How much time do you have to think and to discuss it with others? Is more information attainable in any realistic time frame? Are you required to make a decision on the spot? If so, then you answer the third critical question.
Are you prepared for the decision? Do you know your business? Have you already gained the knowledge to make the call? Do you know what you don't know? Have you trained to follow an urgent-decision protocol that can be executed in the time available? Are you experienced in making right decisions on the spot or at length in an environment like the one you now confront, with the same players involved and similar risks and rewards at stake? If the situation involves human opponents, do you know how prepared or experienced they are? Do they know what they don't know? Are you reasonably sure you have the means to execute the decision? Does it matter? Are there other people with more experience and better preparation to whom you can turn for advice?
If you have more time to make a decision, then you must make yourself more aware. You can gather more information, consult a wider circle of advisers, study your situation and review similar decisions, seek answers to questions you know are pertinent, and identify questions that aren't immediately apparent.
Fourth, do you have confidence, an informed confidence, that the information you are using to make the decision is reliable? Are your assumptions no more than groupthink, conventional interpretations of situations that may differ in important, perhaps unknown ways from the one you are currently in or that have not been reassessed in light of incoming information? Or are they based on observations of the specific situation? Have you weighed conflicting evidence and come to a sound conclusion as to which is more accurate? The answer to these questions may well rely on personal knowledge you possess about the sources of that information. Has the source been reliable in the past? Is it experienced with providing such information? If it is human intelligence on which you rely, what are your sources' qualifications for locating and evaluating relevant information? What are their motives? Could they have hidden motives? Have they given you reason in the past to doubt their judgment? Do they have the ability to separate the important from the extraneous? Do they understand your needs? Do they see the situation in the same way or differently than you do? Do you know why? Remember, garbage in, garbage out, as computer programmers say. False information is often perpetuated and will lead you to not only one bad decision but possibly several if it forms the premise of your strategic thinking and is not exposed as false in good time.
A large part of the reason the United States invaded Iraq was our confidence that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons and was making significant progress in developing nuclear weapons. That confidence was in part based on information from previously unreliable or questionable sources. Part of it was based on the comfort we took from the fact that the intelligence services of many other countries shared that assumption. Leave aside the question of whether we would have invaded had we known the true state of his weapons programs: some have argued we shouldn't have; others, myself included, argued that Saddam still posed a threat that was best to address sooner rather than later. I mention this issue only to illustrate how false information perpetuated other mistakes. Soon after the invasion, we devoted time and manpower and the priority concentration of our civilian leadership to efforts to scour Iraq for weapons that weren't there, when it would have been far better to concentrate our efforts and our soldiers on more critically important tasks, such as securing conventional arms depots and dealing with the pockets of resistance we left behind in the race to Baghdad. The political and military mistakes we have made in Iraq offer a variety of examples of insufficient awareness. Books, rather large ones, have been written to cover them all. An important part of awareness is anticipating the decisions you will have to make if your initial decision proves successful. For instance, we were well aware of the quality of the Iraqi army, the conditions we would fight in, the stability of the regime we sought to destroy, even the character of the tyrant we deposed. We designed a force and an operational plan to dispense with them quickly. But we did not plan for or have the force ready to deal with our success. We didn't know what would happen in Iraq if we achieved our initial objective by the means we employed, and we were very slow in realizing what was needed when it did happen. That proved to be a very serious and tragic mistake.
The last and indispensable component of awareness is the most subjective: personal knowledge of the people involved in and affected by your decision. And the most important part of that equation is selfawareness. Are you better at seeing the big picture and less adept at gathering and evaluating details? Are there people around you to compensate for that? Are you patient? Impulsive? Are you intimidated by a lack of consensus among your advisors? Are you dismissive of dissent? Do you have a tendency to focus on finding support for a judgment you have already made and to discount contradictory evidence? Once you've made up your mind, are you intent on moving on? Or will you change your mind even late in the game, if other facts come to light? Are you too prone to doubts? Or are you the kind of person whose treasured hopes have in the past trumped lessons learned from hard experience? What are your most common mistakes? Do you work well under pressure, or are you much better when you have time to wait on more information, on additional help, or for events to become clearer? Have your instincts served you well in the past? If so, do you trust them more than contradictory facts or the advice of experienced counselors? Most important, do you know these things about yourself? What have you done to compensate for them? Have you a team designed, at least in part, to compensate for your shortcomings? These are but a few of the many personal questions that have to be answered before making an informed decision. And they should be asked and answered before you are confronted with the need to make a decision.
What do you do when a routine checkup leads to an unfortunate diagnosis and you are confronted with choosing between two or more forms of treatment? Do you simply ask the doctor for his or her advice and give your assent to the decision? Do you know your doctor well enough? Is your trust based on anything more than familiarity and amiability? If your doctor is not qualified to make that recommendation, he or she will likely send you to someone who is. Have you sought additional opinions? Have you searched for information about the nature of your disease? What are the rates of success for each proposed treatment? Do you know how much time you have before your situation becomes so acute that it limits your options? Do you understand the nature of the proposed treatments? Do you know enough about yourself to know if you can withstand mentally and physically some treatments better than others? If surgery is required, have you taken care to find the best surgeon available? Have you chosen a hospital that is well regarded for the kind of surgery or treatment you need? In short, the better aware you are, the more sound your decision. What is the most common observation made by someone who made the wrong call? "I really didn't know."