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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Four ways to evaluate such a big decision

Question: It's now obvious that Homeland Security officials misjudged the public reaction to new airport security measures. What should leaders do when confronted with widespread backlash against a decision they still believe to be sound and in which they have invested considerable money and reputation? Should the TSA try to weather the storm or plot a strategic retreat?

Sometimes a leader may reverse a key decision or hold fast to the chosen course. Knowing what do to and when defines a leader's legacy.

Examining a decision in context is essential to determining its efficacy. Asking four questions will help a leader gain perspective.

Why is this decision important? Big decisions require deliberation over time. Typically part of the equation involves testing assumptions, as in, "What is the cost of not doing what we propose doing?" Revisiting why a decision was made is a good first step because it will confirm why you did what you did. sound decisions affirm the organizational mission.

Who benefits from the decision?
There are winners and losers in every decision because decisions provoke change. Consequences of the decision may mean some people gain power and influence; others may lose it. Or many more may suffer inconvenience. Resistance is to be expected; how to deal with resistance is a measure of leadership. It may require more active participation by the leader to ensure that everyone pulls together for the good of the organization.

What is the cost of reversing the decision? There are risks in reversing a significant decision, especially if time and resources have been invested in their implementation. This can make the organization look unfocused, even wishy-washy. At the same time, pulling back might be prudent because it will save the company from throwing good money after bad or from alienating stakeholders.

What is best for the organization? The challenge leaders face everyday is doing what the organization needs them to do. When a decision proves unpopular, it may make sense to hold course because the long-term pain outweighs the short-term gain. We see this often with corporate reorganizations.

These questions will help the leader get to the heart of the decision and what should happen next. There is one other aspect to consider: the effect on the leader. Sometimes a reversal would mean the end of a job, especially if the decision has proven to be wrong and done harm to the organization. In parliamentary systems, this is what happens to party leaders who are given a vote of no confidence.

Reversals can also illuminate a leader's ability to be an honest broker. This can be a sign of strength as well as intelligence because it demonstrates that the leader understands what is best for the organization. This is precisely what Roberto Goizueta did as CEO of Coca Cola when it became evident that the reformulation of New Coke was wrong-headed. The company reversed its decision and, in the process, grew market share for what became known as Classic Coke.

There is one area in which leaders cannot reverse: integrity. You can change policy, but you cannot compromise principle. As straightforward as this seems, all too often we have seen companies short-change employee relationships due to a shift in business conditions. Cutting back to save a company going through a tough patch is part of business. Exacting those cuts only on employees while sparing management is unprincipled.

Reversing a decision because it is not working is what good leaders do when the decision proves unworkable or impractical. In this way the leader puts the organization first and ego second. At the same time, holding fast to an unpopular decision because it is good for the organization in the long run affirms the mission as well as the resilience of the leader.

By John Baldoni

 |  November 22, 2010; 7:47 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , CEOs , Congressional leadership , Corporate leadership , Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Organizational Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Get serious! Nothing TSA is doing has anything to do with stopping terrorism! It is politics and money; BS and Money; creating petty bureacrats and money, avoiding responsibility and money; having power and money! With cockpit doors sealed, another 911 debacle can not occur; so the danger is less than before 911... so give up the stupidty already! Baaaaa!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | November 24, 2010 11:09 AM
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According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics from 1999-2009 the odds of being a terrorism victim in a flight is 1:10,408,947 or 0.00000000096%. Your odds of being struck by lightning are about 1:500,000 or 0.00000002%. Which means that you are 20.8 times more likely to get hit by lightning than you are to be harmed by a terrorism event.

The government is spending $42 Billion on the TSA each year (not including the economic costs of the TSA procedures). If the TSA is 100% successful then it will spend roughly $649,149,922 per person it saves per year (according to the same statistics).

Now, I don't know about you but it seems that the government could do a lot more with that money. If we included the economic costs, the government might well be spending over $1 Billion dollars per person it saves. $1 Billion dollars can do a lot more than save 1 life.

Posted by: theartistpoet | November 24, 2010 1:06 AM
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If TSA had taken your advise, these new procedures would not be in place because the level of "success" is miniscule. Then take into account the cost of the project and the uproar it will cause. They obviously did not.

TSA, especially, will never be able to assure 100% safety, even if they did do body cavity searches. This is a knee jerk reaction to last year's embarassing failure.

What needs to be looked at is how successful TSA has been. How many smugglers or terrorist have been caught by TSA? None. Not very successful then. Not to mention the fact that most TSOs wouldn't know what to do with a terrorist. If one was caught in the security line, they would likely set off whatever bomb they had and kill more people in the security area than they could on a plane.

Posted by: hebe1 | November 23, 2010 3:28 PM
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