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"I Won't Back Down?": Complexity and Courage in U.S. Federal Executive Decision-Making


  • Kelman, Steven

    (Harvard University)

  • Sanders, Ronald

    (Booz Allen Hamilton)

  • Pandit, Gayatri

    (Booz Allen Hamilton)

  • Taylor, Sarah

    (Booz Allen Hamilton)


Senior government executives make many decisions, not-infrequently difficult ones. Cognitive limitations and biases preclude individuals from making fully value-maximizing choices. And the "groupthink" tradition has highlighted ways group-aided decision-making can fail to live up to its potential. Out of this literature has emerged a prescriptive paradigm Janis calls "vigilant decision-making" For this paper, we interviewed twenty heads of subcabinet-level organizations in the U.S. federal government, asking each questions about how they made important decisions. Ten were nominated by "good-government" experts as ones doing an outstanding job improving the organization's performance, ten chosen at random. The vigilant decision-making approach is designed for difficult decisions, presumed to be informationally, technically, or politically complex. However, we found that when we asked these executives to discuss their most difficult decision, most identified decisions that were not informationally complex but instead mainly required courage to make. In this context, the vigilant decision-making paradigm might be more problematic than the literature suggests. We discuss here the different demands for decisions involving complexity and those involving courage, and suggest a contingency model of good decision-making processes that requires executives and advisors to be ambidextrous in their approaches.

Suggested Citation

  • Kelman, Steven & Sanders, Ronald & Pandit, Gayatri & Taylor, Sarah, 2014. ""I Won't Back Down?": Complexity and Courage in U.S. Federal Executive Decision-Making," Working Paper Series rwp14-040, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  • Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp14-040

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