The list goes on, but arguably the most important skill any leader possesses is the ability to make a number of smart decisions — and to not take it personally when, inevitably, a few of those decisions don’t appear to work out.
Hold that thought
Chase Elliott, Nascar’s most popular driver for the past two years — keep that point in mind — was leading the recent Coca-Cola 600 when, with two laps to go, teammate William Byron’s spin caused a caution flag with two laps to go.
Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, had a decision to make: Stay out on old tires and keep the lead, or pit for new tires. Staying out meant running in clean air — having no cars in front to affect the car’s aerodynamics — which would be an advantage. On the other hand, Elliott had struggled earlier in the race on old tires, nearly falling out of the top 20.
So which mattered more: Track position, or grip?
Gustafson chose to bring Elliott in for new tires.
Second-place Brad Keselowski did the opposite and stayed out. Why?
Elliott had the strongest car and an outstanding pit crew. Had Keselowski also come in for new tires, chances are he would have restarted the race in second at best and been unlikely to pass Elliott for the win. If he wanted a chance to win, doing the opposite of Elliott out was the sensible response.
Of course the same was true for some of the cars running behind Keselowski, and for the same reason: Getting new tires meant having to pass anyone who stayed out — and Chase Elliott, who would be on new tires.
Elliott restarted in 11th place. He passed eight cars, none of which had pitted, in two laps to finish third. (And eventually second, after Jimmie Johnson’s car failed post-race inspection.)
Clearly new tires mattered — but, since so many cars elected not to pit, new tires didn’t matter enough.
Gustafson faced considerable criticism after the race. Deny Nascar’s most popular driver a chance at a win? To paraphrase, his late-race decision was stupid.
If Elliott stays out, Keselowski almost surely pits. If he doesn’t, he has no chance to win the race.
Third-place Jimmie Johnson definitely pits. Otherwise he’ll have to run in dirty air; if drivers behind him pit, he’ll be a sitting duck. Staying out gives him no shot at winning the race — and Johnson is suffering through the longest winless streak of his career.
If Elliott stays out, Johnson definitely comes in.
In short, whichever decision Gustafson makes, others will do the opposite.
Which means, contrary to what all the “experts” believe, the only way to determine the correct decision is in hindsight.
Which Gustafson understands. He’s a crew chief because he loves building fast race cars. He loves building teams. He loves competing at the highest level. He loves trying to out-work, and out-think, and out-innovative the opposition.
And he knows that criticism comes with the territory — even though knowing doesn’t always make it easy to face.
“I don’t base my self-worth on other people’s opinions or what other people say,” Gustafson said a few days later, “but certainly I’m a human being, too, and it doesn’t feel great to have that many rocks thrown at you.”
One decision does not a crew chief make. One decision does not a leader make. The key is to make the best decision you can based on the information you have — and the time you have available to make that decision.
Which is why Jeff Bezos says:
Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90 percent, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.
Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.
Some decisions will work out. Others won’t. But don’t just learn from the outcome — learn from how you made the decision.
Only through hindsight could Gustafson know — actually know — whether his decision was right or wrong. That’s why he’s probably wasted little time second-guessing that decision.
But Gustafson has likely spent considerable time thinking about how he made the decision, and how that will inform the way he, and his team, make decisions in the future.
As a leader, you won’t get every decision right. Nor will you ever please everyone; as Gustafson said, “It was a long couple of days.” But not too long.
Four days later, Elliott won the Alsco Uniforms 500.
Success and praise won’t define you. Neither will mistakes or criticism.
What defines you is what you learn from both.
And what you do next.