This is part of my Series on Entrepreneurial Culture.
There are many occasions in the life of an entrepreneur or investor when bold action is required: Do we make this acquisition? Should we hire this developer? Do we offer them a term sheet? Tweak the pricing? We've all been faced with such critical moments when a decision needs to be made.
In fact, it's very much the archetype of the "decisive man/woman-of-action" that is etched into our collective imagination when we think of the qualities of a successful "leader". Lately an entire science of leadership has sprung up with an army of "coaches", "leadership experts", leadership masters degrees and the like suddenly available to us. Thousands of business books and academic case-studies extol, analyze and critique the decision-making prowess (or lack thereof) of executives and investors in American business.
It's an amazing phenomenon and I certainly don't begrudge anyone who makes a living from this. I have, however seen this stuff poured into more than one executive's head (by people with zero business experience) with dire consequences for their businesses. Bias based on skewed perceptions of "leadership", "action" and their perceived benefits, leads many executives down a mistake-filled path.
Interestingly, amidst all the noise about leadership and action, one rarely encounters stories about the wisdom of “non-action” – the wisdom to defer or to simply say “no”. Among investors, for example, one rarely hears a discussion of one's "negative portfolio", (the investments that were considered but that didn't get made). Similarly, among entrepreneurs we only occasionally hear stories about the decision "not to hire that guy", or "not to sign that industry partnership". I guess it's just easier for us to talk about things we've actually done as opposed to things we decided not to do, even though our “non-actions” are every bit as important as our actions.
The reality is, sometimes the best move of all is to wait a bit before making a decision. What's wrong with thinking things over, letting it all settle a bit? Why get into this rush-to-action mentality? Perform your diligence, lend the decision the time it deserves.
If you don’t feel ready to make a decision, the right answer may well be to do nothing. If you’re feeling pressed into a decision, the right answer is probably “no”. Watch some of the great Russian chess grandmasters play and you'll notice how they'll often repeat moves twice in critical positions before the time-control, giving them extra time to mull over a particular committal move.
Watch some seasoned executives take their sweet time when talking to competing companies hoping to hire them. As everyone else drips with sweat, they're the coolest ones in the room. And let's face it, most of the time deals we're working on take much longer than we thought they would. Sometimes they drag on endlessly and tempers get short. The key is not to react to provocations. Stay cool and watch the situation play out, i.e., do nothing.
So although there are times when decisive action is absolutely required- as Paul Newman puts it in the video above, "sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand".