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Faculty Research Working Paper Series
Steven Kelman
Albert J. Weatherhead III and Richard W. Weatherhead Professor of Public Management
phone: (617)496-6302
fax: (617)496-5747
“I Won’t Back Down?”: Complexity and Courage in U.S. Federal Executive Decision-Making
Kelman, Steven, Ronald Sanders, Gayatri Pandit, and Sarah Taylor. "“I Won’t Back Down?”: Complexity and Courage in U.S. Federal Executive Decision-Making." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP14-040, August 2014.
Senior government executives make many difficult decisions, but research suggests that individual cognitive limitations and the pathologies of “groupthink” impede their ability to make value-maximizing choices. From this literature has emerged a normative model that Irving Janis calls “vigilant problem solving,” a process intended for the most complex decisions. To explore its use by senior public officials, the authors interviewed 20 heads of subcabinet-level organizations in the U.S. federal government, asking how they made their most difficult decisions. The initial focus was on whether they employed a vigilant approach to making decisions that were informationally, technically, or politically complex. Most executives identified their single most-difficult decision as one that required courage; they often made such courageous decisions after personal reflection and/or consultation with a small number of trusted advisors rather in ways that could be described as vigilant. The different approaches for making complex decisions, compared with those involving courage, are discussed and a contingency model of effective executive decision making is proposed that requires leaders (and their advisors) to be “ambidextrous” in their approach.



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