How Leaders Make Tough Decisions

As a leader, you will often have to make tough decisions. This is one of the biggest challenges of leadership. Some can handle it; others can’t. Regardless, it will define your leadership. You will be judged by others largely on the basis of how well you do under pressure.

Photo of George W. Bush from the Cover of His Book, Decision Points

This morning, I watched Matt Lauer’s interview with former President George W. Bush about his new book, Decision Points. I missed the interview when it aired on Tuesday night, so I was grateful to find a copy online. Despite the fact that the show didn’t do well in the ratings, it is chock-full of leadership lessons, both positive and negative. As a leader, it is worth taking the time to watch the whole thing.

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Whether you loved or hated President Bush, he faced a series of challenges unlike any president in recent history: the terrorist attacks on 9/11; two foreign wars, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq; hurricane Katrina, and an economic meltdown. In the book, he discusses all of these under the rubric of “decision points.”

While I haven’t yet read the book, I gleaned several important lessons about leadership and decision-making from the interview:

  1. You will make mistakes—it’s inevitable. President Bush made several of them. I was struck by how freely he admitted to these. He also didn’t try to minimize them. To think that you are going to lead without making mistakes results in procrastination—something no leader can afford, especially in a crisis. This simply comes with the territory.
  2. You must surround yourself with trusted advisors. You can’t research every aspect of important decisions yourself. At some point you have to depend on the expertise of others. Ultimately, your leadership will stand or fall based on the quality of the advice you receive. Bush made some great decisions here and some unfortunate ones.
  3. You must make decisions with the information available. For leaders, the point of absolute certainty never comes. You will inevitably have to make the call based on the information you have. While you may be unsure, you must act. Pundits may criticize you later, but they have the benefit of hindsight. Leaders don’t have this luxury and must do the best they can with what they have available.
  4. You must take personal responsibility for the outcomes. If you make a mistake, you must own it—even if your advisors gave you bad information. And even if you were acting with the most noble of intentions. If you make a good decision leading to a good outcome, you must give your advisors and others the credit. If you make a bad decision leading to a bad outcome, you alone must take the blame.
  5. You must ignore public opinion when it gets in the way of principle. President Bush had an approval rating above 90% following 9/11. It had plummeted to 30% by the time he left office. In the interview with Matt Lauer, I was struck by how many times he said he didn’t care. Chasing popularity, he noted, is like chasing a vapor. It is here today and gone tomorrow. Instead, you have to make decisions based on principle and let the chips fall where they may.

I can’t wait to read President Bush’s book. In fact, I am hoping to do so this week while I am on vacation. I think biographies are one of the absolute best ways to study leadership.

Question: What leadership lessons did you take away from either the video interview or the book itself? (Please avoid political commentary, as I have tried to do in the post. Whether you agreed or disagreed with President Bush is beside the point.) You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Anthony Marrero

    I was struck by his sense of integrity . His ability to get beyond the noise and make decisions based on the root issues regardless of the rhetoric is something that I admire. I may not have agreed with all his decisions but I never doubted that his reasoning had anything to do with popularity. It was simply what he felt was the best decision at the time.

  • Sheryl Bullock

    I found his explanation of the Katrina situation to be very enlightening. I never understood the complexity at that moment between state government and federal government. Because he’s been a governor and then a president, he understood both roles. I was glad he had the chance to explain why this didn’t go well. There were very understandable reasons for the delay in help. However, as leaders we don’t always get to give people all the facts behind our decisions. At the time he didn’t malign the leadership in Louisiana and he really didn’t during the interview either. He just explained why it didn’t go well. Sometimes you don’t get to explain your actions fully until later down the road. It took restraint and maturity for him to withhold blame and frustration from his comments. Again, this to me said that he wasn’t interested in popularity.

    I also liked that he sees politics as just a chapter in his life. This is a true sign of balance. He doesn’t have to be in the limelight to feel he has valuable contributions, whether great or small, to make over the course of his lifetime.

  • Brett

    President Bush made significant changes in his life at/after 40 years of age. As one who turned 40 this year, it’s encouraging to think that a lot of change can still take place in my life.

    Application: Leaders keep growing and are lifelong learners. Leaders keep working on personal change instead of settling into a “this is just who I am” mindset, a mindset I find increasingly tempting the older I get.

  • Brett

    Regarding #5, if a person keeps saying over and over that they don’t care, you begin to think that perhaps they do care. One of the things I believe Bush did well during his Presidency is govern by principles rather than polls. It appears to me he was guided more by his moral compass (“doing the right thing”) rather than worry what people would think. Yet, the fact that he was so emotional about what one pop star said about him (basically calling him a racist) made me realize that at some point or another all of us, no matter how much we say we don’t care what people think about us, do indeed care.

  • Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage

    You must have the courage of your convictions and resist pressure to deviate from your core values.

  • Maranda Gibson

    I am also very excited to read Decision Points.

    In reference to #3 — I think that there’s never been a more true statement about leadership. When you’re a leader you have to make the tough decisions, and in a position like this with a lot of power and responsibility, you have to rely on what you’re told. Great leaders have great teams.

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  • http:/ Patrick

    I truly think that those who spent the first eight years of the decade criticizing President Bush made more inroads toward damaging the office of the President than damaging the man.

    Bush did many things poorly as President, but not as many, nor as poorly, as the media would have us believe.

    When I face a tough decision, it helps me to look back on tough times I have faced in the past. George W. Bush had faced tough times as a businessman and as an alcoholic. I believe these trials colored his presidency.

    The bumps in the road define us.

    If you want to see some examples of how other folks faced adversity, overcame and redefined their lives, please check out the latest post at my new blog, Think. Tank.

  • Gini Dietrich

    I thought it was interesting that he said he’s been lying low the past two years to stay out of the spotlight. You can’t blame a man, who was on the hot seat for eight years, to want to do that. I also thought it was interesting that he talked about trusting his advisors, yet so many times ignored them. We have to surround ourselves with smart people and actually listen to what they have to say.

    Since becoming a leader in my own business, I have no patience for pundits or even friends who sit on their soapboxes and act as if they could have made better decisions with the same information. To your point, hindsight is 20/20. We have to make decisions on the fly and, sometimes, we don’t have all of the information. But you’re right, we can’t be paralyzed by it, either.

    Those who live in glass houses…

  • Jody Urquhart

    It does sound like a good book
    As a leader, whenever he spoke- it always seemed like Bush was saying what he was supposed to say or what people wanted to hear.He didnt seem to stand behind what he said with any sense of conviction.

    Obama on the other hand always has a compelling presence.
    is it just good public speaking skills or deeper beleifs and values shining through? Likely a combination of both.

  • Toby

    It was indeed the first time I seen the man as human. A great interview showing he is just a man, and a man who was in charge of making numerous difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching decisions.

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  • Jennifer Fulwiler

    I’ve had this post up in my browser for a couple of weeks to read and re-read. What an excellent distillation of the lessons from this book! Thank you for another helpful post.

    Also, I’m reading a fascinating book right and and immediately thought of you because it’s been a goldmine for me in terms of thoughts on leadership. It’s the biography of Mother Angelica, founder of the EWTN television network. You can find it here: It’s the stunning story of how a cloistered, Poor Clare nun got an inspiration to start a television network, despite the fact that she had $200 in the bank and zero experience with television. It’s full of jaw-dropping insights about what it means to be a leader despite turmoil within and outside of your organization, and how you work trust God into all your decisions. With your interest in leadership, I think you’ll love it.

    Anyway, keep up the great work!

  • Jalyn

    Thank you for the link to the interview. It reinforced many concepts about leadership that I held to be true. I respect Mr. Busch’s ability to remain focused and unmoved by the hatred and disapproval that many persons had for him. I am reminded of a passage of scripture which my pastor – a powerful leader – has reminded her senior leadership team of on a few occasions. It is Genesis 49:23-24, speaking of Joseph.

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  • W. Mark Thompson

    Interesting statement: “This is one of the biggest challenges of leadership. Some can handle it;
    others can’t.” Assuming leadership is something that can be developed to the point of becoming a strength, I believe these challenges are something that can be conquered. It is definitely an on-the-job training experience. There’s only so much you can simulate. But it’s also true, the character of that decision maker will shine through when the decisions prove to be the wrong one(s). Seems to be a building process. Good post. Thought provoking.

  • W. Mark Thompson

    Came back to this post as we come up on the 9-11 anniversary. I had family in tower 2 of the World Trade Center. Wrote a personal post about it here:

    Hope this is not inappropriate. Delete if it is.
    Hopefully it can help while we reflect and pray for those affected 10 years ago.


  • marek

     Thanks! Nice post. I found it while writing The art of making right decisions. I think the key is to make all decisions while you calm, without emotions, otherwise you might regret them.

  • Jim Huntington

    Having to make many decisions daily, and of course everyone else knows what my decision should be. I would appreciate an objective guide to help be sure that decisions are approproiatly thought through without procrastinating. Need al the help I can get.