The Barack Obama technique for making tough decisions

The Barack Obama technique for making tough decisions

Over the past years, the definition of leadership has changed. We used to think of leadership as a trait associated with one’s title or hierarchical position within a company or an organisation. Today, we think of leadership as a social process that mixes individual desires and the group’s needs towards a specific goal.

It is not an enviable position to be in. A leader has to take tough decisions, sometimes in a matter of minutes, that could end up affecting not only himself but also those that decided to put their trust into him/her. A leader of a state – a President, Prime Minister or any kind of head of government, has a much bigger responsibility in ensuring that the decisions taken are for the good of the country’s citizens, for its future generations – and in the case of the US, also for most of the world.

This was the position President Barack Obama found himself in between 2009 and 2016, where he as President of the United States, had to set a roadmap for the US Administration, especially in light of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. In a recent post, he explains how no decision he was presented with throughout his mandate had a black or white answer. He had to make decisions that were risky for his administration and for the 300 million Americans, not to mention most of the rest of the world. In the course of his mandate he learnt that when taking these decisions, there was no guarantee that the result would be the one he wanted. Once a decision was taken, the outcome was often out of his hands.

I had already realized that because every tough decision came down to a probability, then certainty was an impossibility…

— President Barack Obama

To avoid wasting time trying to find a perfect solution that does not exist in the first place, Obama says that he found “a sound decision-making process”. When a tough decision needed to be taken, he would first resort to listening to the experts. Upon their advice and the facts he was provided with, he would then compare these to the political goals he hoped to reach while in office and then weighed all of this against his personal principles. While he still could not be certain of the consequences of his decisions, he would at least be confident that he did the right thing based on what he knew at the time.

So how can you use this in everyday life?

Most of us won’t be Presidents and would not need to make decisions on the economy or the foreign policy of a country. We won’t have political goals that we were elected to implement. At the same time, however, every one of us has to deal with tough decisions. We all have personal goals and personal principles. Tough decisions vary from individual to individual, however, Obama’s decision-making process may help us in our daily life by allowing us to be confident in whatever we decide to do.

Let’s compare Obama’s four steps in his decision-making excercise to a process that you might go through in your everyday life:

  • Listen to the experts ➡️ Ask close friends, family members, mentors or someone you could talk to, and who has been through the same situation you are facing. Don’t let them take the decision for you, but consider each and every one of their advice. As Obama also reiterates, it is important to listen to others. Keep an open mind and ask questions, they may tell you things that you may have not yet considered.
  • Follow the facts ➡️ Analyse the pros and cons of every possible decision. Write these down on a paper to get a clearer idea of what you are facing. This will help you to realise that sometimes what you think is the worst possible scenario is not as bad as you might imagine it to be.
  • Consider your goals ➡️ What do you hope to achieve in the near future? Are any of the decisions before you good for your personal or professional goals? Which course of action will help you reach your goals faster/better?
  • Weigh all of this against your principles ➡️ Will taking a certain decision go against your core principles? If it does chances are you’ll end up regretting making that decision, even if it provides a “shortcut” to your goals. Act accordingly.

Once you have considered these steps, it is also important to create space to think, whether going for a walk, writing or playing sports, it is crucial to step away from the decisions you need to make. This does not have to take long, even just a few minutes will help you get a better understanding of what is at stake.

When a decision is taken, stand by it. You won’t know the outcome of this yet, but at least you’ll know that you took that decision with the best possible information at the time.

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