In the first century BC, the Latin mime and writer Publilius Syrus observed that “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”. In turmoil however, when decisions are critical, many leaders make grave errors in judgment (Kahnemann et al, 1982).
In 2012, Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia, wrecked the £370 million vessel on the rocks near the island of Giglio – he claimed he had simply wished to greet a friend on shore. Highly competent, experienced and qualified leaders are often influenced by their hearts, leaving more rational, considered and impartial options submerged in their wake (Von Clausewitz, 2009).
Why and how do good leaders make bad decisions?
In Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, the unnamed captain’s decision to give safe harbour, transit and protection to Leggatt, a self-confessed murderer, ultimately jeopardises the future of his crew, ship and career. The captain’s inexperience, self-doubt and isolation lead him to align with, relate and even aspire to Leggatt’s freedom, self-determination and power. Prioritising such a man over the well-being of the crew is potentially perilous in the extreme (Klein, G. 1999).
The neuroscience of decision-making reveals three distinct phenomena concerning the captain’s choices. First, we know that he feels a stranger to the ship, the crew and to himself, and that his role is new to him. Thus, in the absence of contextual experience, he defers to a humanistic approach (Rogers, 1946), which is to help a cold and potentially drowning man.
Second, once he has assisted this man, it is psychologically natural for the captain to continue the “pattern” of help. Third, having attached an emotional “tag” to the successful protection of Leggatt, his rational decision-making ability is considerably impaired, if not entirely muted (Finkelstein et al, 2009).
Research tells us the decisions we make are almost instantaneous and often at an unconscious level (Nisbett and Wilson, 1977). Leaders must be aware that their brains are predisposed to deliver subjective conclusions, and seek to ensure this is counter-balanced through the use of appropriate safeguards, such as consultation, governance and debate. The Secret Sharer serves to highlight the rocky path set forth by unilateral and risky decisions.
Finkelstein, S., Whitehead, J., Campbell. A., (2009) "The illusion of smart decision making: the past is not prologue", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 30 Iss: 6, pp.36 - 43
Finkelstein, S., Whitehead, J., Campbell. A., (2008) Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Kahneman, D., Slovic, P. and Tversky, A. (1982) Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. New York. Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 3
Klein, G. (1999) Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Nisbett, R. E. & Wilson, T. D. (1977) Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84(3):231–59
Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1, 415-422.
Von Clausewitz, C. (2009), On War, LeVergne, TN: Wildside Press, p. 42.