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Posted: September 06, 2012

Captain Decision

If we sink, it's on me

David Sneed

People who know me get upset that I make decisions without consulting them.

It seems to them that I don’t value anyone’s opinion, that I arbitrarily decide a course of action and steam ahead without any discussion.

It’s true, but it’s because I alone am responsible for the outcome.

Like a ship’s captain, I'm responsible if we strike a reef in Prince William Sound or get swarmed by pirates in the Malacca Straits. If we arrive safely in Long Beach, I get the credit; but more importantly, if we sink, I alone take the blame.

Asking a subordinate for input allows them control over the decision without the burden of responsibility. Yes, you may have the final say, but there’s no doubt that you’re being influenced by what someone else says.

In the extreme, you have to worry that, in choosing a contrary course, your confidante will feel untrusted. But also into your brain creeps the doubt that if you go counter to the suggestion and fail, they’ll say: “I told you so.”

The mere fact that another’s feelings are a part of the equation means your decision-making has been influenced.

A simple and common example:

Think of a time you and the wife have to cross town at rush hour. If you ask “What’s the best way?” you put yourself in the position of having to go the route she suggests – even if you think it’s wrong.  It takes a brave man to go route A when she suggests route B.

Then, when you’re an hour late because of congestion on route B, you secretly blame her, and the night is ruined.

But you also fear taking route A because, if you’re stuck in traffic going that way, you’ll never hear the end of it.

Whether you realize it or not, asking advice has taken away your independence.

And “What do you think?” has compromised many business decisions, too.

“What the heck, let’s go for it,” is that siren on your shoulder which gently charts you into a course you might not have taken. But when your company loses money, where is the fellow who swayed you?

“This doesn’t seem like a good time to invest” might make you hold off when everything else is telling you to buy that new equipment right now. After all, what if he’s right? Maybe your subordinate knows something you don’t.

Well, where is he when you’ve missed the boat?

I realize that this flies in the face of accepted leadership teaching. But you alone bear the burden of responsibility.

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

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Readers Respond

KG - regarding your other examples, Bay of Pigs, etc. Do you think Kennedy, NASA, etc didn't have absolutely tons of input? Probably too much. Ultimately though, one person had to make the decision. Do you think he asked someone "Hey, do you think we should launch?" and relied on that persons opinion? Nope. All the input in the world doesn't relieve the decision-maker. Having information is necessary for an informed decision. Seeking advice, however, leads to issues you don't want or need. By David on 2012 09 13
I recently finsihed a 12 hour audio book encompassing 24 graduate level lectures on decision making. Many examples were given but a few really strike home. The Bay of Pigs, Challenger, and Columbia disasters were in part due to not evaluating input from lower ranking members of the respective organizations. People paid the ultimate price. The Cuban missle crisis and when Iacocca saved Chrysler are examples of assembling the right teams with the right information resulting in positive outcomes. By KG on 2012 09 07
My reaction to this article was one of surprise. Companies must have leadership who make the tough decisions. Leaders who go it alone often fail as they lose sight and are caught up in themselves. IMO, no single person can do as much as a team. By seeking input the leader is engaging personnel and getting a 360 degree view of the situation. That generally leads to better overall sustained performance. Leaders who do not nurture this type of open discussion may well experience personnel disengaging or leaving the business. By Rob Germundson on 2012 09 06
Thanks for the thoughts. I use some columns to help myself (and others maybe) test ideas. I do, as Jim says, want the lookout to tell me there's an iceberg "roight ahead". But whether we turn left, right, or reverse is a decision that I don't want his input on, even if he's my friend. It will affect my own decision making process. (I think.) Maybe this is more of a psychology issue, DOES a suggested course of action influence our decision making? By David on 2012 09 06
The ship analogy works well here. The captain certainly wants information from his guy in the crow's nest, but needs to be able to listen quietly to his own intuition and experience - sometimes ignoring the relationship dynamics. This is especially important in an emergency. But perhaps there could also be a role for a trusted first officer in the decision making process? By Jim Kreinbrink on 2012 09 06
When you build the business and know the inter-workings, I agree with you. I've seen both sides as an employee and as an employer. Within an organization, it can be frustrating when those above you don't understand what you do or what your support needs are to be effective. However, that is not the(visionary/big picture) role of role of the CEO/Owner. Supervisors and managers need to be open to input on operations. Maybe that was the mindset of KG and Doug in their responses. By John Gimple on 2012 09 06
You may alone bear the responsibility, but unfortunately you do not alone bear the consequences. You take the whole ship down with you. And ... this is a tough concept ... you alone may not think of everything. By susan on 2012 09 06
Our company is looking at a new ERP system. I manage the DC and am fortuante that my boss a CFO is asking for my input during the selection process. The last thing the company needs is a bean counter dictating what systems and functionality the system will have. HQ deals in a virtual world and the DC operates in the physical realm. There is no "I" in team. By KG on 2012 09 06
Must be nice to be so smart you can't allow anyone to help. Do you also make all the decisions for your employees? By Doug on 2012 09 06
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