Leadership Effectiveness: Leap of Faith

Leadership Effectiveness: Leap of FaithWhen faced with a decision that has no definitive answer, what do leaders do?

Sometimes, despite all of our best efforts, we just don’t have a definitive answer. In fact, in most cases, we don’t know beyond the shadow of a doubt what the outcomes of our decisions will be. Many teams, leaders, and executive groups pontificate, go back and forth, and drag decisions on ad infinitum making the decision process feel like root canal without Novocain. This practice inevitably is problematic for leaders’ credibility.

Oftentimes, taking a leap of faith yields the best outcomes. “A leap of faith is most commonly defined as the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without empirical evidence,” (Wikipedia). In the business and financial world, it is characterized by “a decision to act based on available information or analysis and where the outcome is uncertain,” (businessdictionary.com). Acting on one’s intuition may be, at times, the same as taking a leap of faith.

“It was either going to be court martial or the Distinguished Service Cross.” It was January 1, 1945 and 25-year-old Lt. Col. John C. Meyer’s P-51 fighter was idling on a runway near Asch, Belgium awaiting orders to take off with the rest of the 352 Fighter Group. The Battle of the Bulge was a week old and the terrible weather which had protected the German ground forces had just cleared. Intelligence said that the German army was collapsing and the Luftwaffe was finished.

Suddenly, in the distance Meyer saw anti-aircraft fire. Friendly fire could easily explain the explosions, but suppose the Army was actually firing at German aircraft? Meyer’s instincts told him something was wrong. Meyer’s military training told him to wait and follow orders. Taking off without clearance was a court martial offense, but if the 352nd Fighter Group got caught on the ground, they would be destroyed.
He signaled his squadron for takeoff and shoved the throttle forward. As Meyer lifted off, he found himself head-to-head with a German Focke-Wulf FW-190. Meyer opened fire even before his landing gear was in the wheel-wells.

American pilots won decisively and John Meyer was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. What would have happened if Meyer had not taken the leap of faith to launch without orders? A very different outcome for the 352nd and, possibly, the world.

When one thinks about leaps of faith in a business context, it is hard not to think about Steve Jobs. He probably took more leaps of faith than any other business leader in history—and with spectacular results.

This is not to say that leaps of faith always work out. In Think Again , the authors recount the fateful leap that the Director of the Homeland Security Operations Center took in August, 2005. FEMA informed him that it could cope with the approaching hurricane, the Army Corps of Engineers said that levees had not been breached, and CNN showed people partying on Bourbon Street. He went to bed secure that all would be well and that Katrina was just another garden-variety hurricane. It was not. His instincts told him to ignore 17 reports (also in his possession) about flooding and levee breaches, and to put his faith in the TV news, FEMA’s statement, and the report from the Corps of Engineers. The rest is history, as they say.

What does all this mean for you as an executive? Some of us will always be more comfortable taking a leap of faith than others. There are times, like it or not, when there is no time to gather data and you have to act quickly. In other cases, you may have the time to gather the data and analyses but still may be better served by taking the leap…listening to your gut. What are the lessons from the above examples that can help sharpen your ability to take that leap?

  1. Think about what principles or values need to drive your behavior. It is like having a “go bag” in the event of an emergency.
  2. Think about whether any of those principles or values are in conflict. How you would weigh them against each other?
  3. Is there experience, knowledge, or training that you need to gain in order to be more secure in championing change with incomplete data?
  4. To state the obvious, don’t discount looking at significant data which may be available to you.
  5. Make sure that your colleagues know they can safely tell the emperor he has no clothes.

What lessons do you draw from the above that could help you on the job? Can you think of instances where your interests or that of your organization would have been better served had you taken a leap of faith? What is your gut telling you about situations you are facing now?

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