Today's Reading

by Steve Forbes

Decisions! Decisions!

We make countless numbers of them each day, most of them mundane and routine. But then there are those with consequences of varying degree: preparing a presentation; hiring and firing; putting together a budget; deciding on a major capital expenditure; starting a business; whether or not to propose marriage or accept/reject such a proposal; how best to perform a surgery if you're a physician; what experiments to pursue if you're in science or medicine; choosing a career or deciding on a new direction for your professional life; putting your physical safety on the line for a cause and on and on.

How best approach an impending decision of importance? It's an art, not a science, as this must-have book makes clear. There are times when you don't have the luxury of contemplation and must act with incomplete information, when there are no clear choices. Some leaders say they may go by their gut. But as Bob Dilenschneider illustrates, the "gut" is shaped by all previous experience and learning. It is not a blank slate.

Good decision-making requires discipline, as well as an ability to weigh an array of facts, even when they are seemingly contradictory. It requires being receptive for advice—only the ignorantly arrogant think they always know what they need to know—and when necessary, asking for it as a means to "give ownership" to those giving it, even if you don't take all or even a part of it.

And how to weigh the consequences of an act! What is humbling is that there is many a time where that is impossible, as Dilenschneider's chapters on Gutenberg and Luther graphically make clear. And, of course, there are moments when "the decider" (to use former President George Bush's appellation) knows full well the momentousness of a particular course of action, most famously Caesar crossing the Rubicon River, which he recognized would trigger civil war.

When it comes to deciding, there is no end of tips and guidelines for seemingly any and every situation.

What makes this book so valuable is that Dilenschneider, who has spent a lifetime counseling individuals and organizations on effective communications and crisis management, and in doing so, winning a legendary reputation as the penultimate "go-to guy" for strategizing and a source of sound counseling, knows the power of storytelling for compellingly making points that would otherwise be fairly useless abstractions.

Here he takes a wide range of individuals, most known but not all, and walks us through critical decisions they made that in various ways profoundly affected the world. He helpfully gives biographical thumbnail sketches and crucially lays out the context in which the person must act. Some are heart-wrenching as when Elie Wiesel must decide what to do about his father as they are about to be force-marched by Nazi guards from one death camp to another. Others are acts of courage in going forward despite personal losses and serious illness as was the case of Marie Curie.

Sometimes there are family pressures that can be formidable to overcome. Martin Luther's strong-willed father commanded that his son become a lawyer and work in the family mining business. The young Luther felt a calling to become a priest. Unwilling to face the issue directly, the man who would upend Europe and indeed the world and who never shirked a challenge, simply disappeared to a monastery, and only when ready to take his vows did he inform his father of what he had done!

We don't make decisions in a vacuum.

Motives? Some are noble and some seemingly mundane. Gutenberg wanted to make money. In his day, books were painstakingly handmade over a period of months. There was a market for more accessible knowledge. Gutenberg wanted to seize it, but it took him thirty years of experimentation to invent the printing press with movable type and to perfect the kind of paper that would be most practical. He didn't grasp that he had invented mass communications! And, more pressing for him, an unscrupulous lender yanked his business away just as Gutenberg was about to realize the fruits of his long labors. It would have been small consolation to him to know that no one would remember the moneylender while Gutenberg and his bibles would be

Having been in business for decades and keenly observing numerous leaders, as well as being a student of history, Dilenschneider is uniquely able to enrich his chapters with a texture and plausibility absent from those customary works offering how-to advice. The people he examines bring to life the lessons he then elucidates at the end of each chapter.

This is why this book is so valuable—you get to see "up close and personal" how decisions were made in numerous situations. Of course, times and circumstances are always changing. No two individual situations are exactly alike. But certainly there are chapters here that you will find useful to go back to for inspiration and help depending on the type of important decision you must make. As Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

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