Do You Want a CEO Like McCain or Obama?

Last Updated Oct 7, 2008 5:45 PM EDT

Go with your gut, or analyze every possibility? These are the two main modes of decision-making. I've posted on whether one is better than the other, and had vocal input from BNET readers. Jonah Lehrer, in "The Next Decider," looks at the "decider-in-chief," discussing whether we'd be better off with a president who trusts his gut, like John McCain, or one who is analytical and data-driven like Barack Obama, it's a good piece for business leaders, too.

That's because the answer appears to be, you need someone who can do both. Lehrer writes that

"the emerging consensus among scientists...is that both approaches are flawed. While our instincts and emotions can be astonishingly prescient, they can also lead us to disaster. And a more deliberative style brings its own set of problems, such as losing sight of the most relevant information and even a debilitating indecisiveness."
It turns out that research suggests (this is not conclusive, mind you) that
"Simple problems -- those involving a limited number of variables -- are best suited for deliberate thought, so people don't make any obvious mistakes. In contrast, complex problems seems to benefit from the processing powers of the unconscious, as long as people first take the time to carefully, deliberately assimilate all the relevant facts."
But we may not be able to break our patterns, regardless of what they are. So, what to do? He cites AP Dijksterhuis, a Dutch psychologist, as saying that research shows "people making complex decisions should analyze their options, but then stop: "go on holiday while your unconscious digests the problem," [Dijksterhuis] writes. "Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice."

Presidents can do this by putting people with opposing points of view in their Cabinet, something Lincoln did effectively. Lehrer frets that in modern politics, it's almost impossible for a president to do this, or do anything else that shows less than perfect command of every moment of every situation; Lincoln was chided for being indecisive early in his first term, before it became clear that he was dumb like a fox. But Lincoln didn't face 24/7 attack advertising for admitting mistakes or changing his mind about something.

CEOs are less likely to be under constant media scrutiny. It's almost old advice to make sure that you hire people who don't agree with you all the time, and listen to them. Lehrer's piece reinforces that the smart CEO wants to mix a McCain-type and an Obama-type, and get the best of both. Of course, that requires real management skills.

By the way, Lehrer's article is accompanied by a Q&A with political psychologist Philip Tetlock, who among other things talks about why experience is overrated.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.