Leaders Don’t Guess

By | February 1, 2019

[February 1, 2019]  There’s a kid’s guessing game that is old as humans have been on this Earth.  It involves one child holding something in one hand and asking another which hand holds the object.  It’s a simple guessing game.  Or is it?  Unlike the average child who gets to chose randomly, leaders don’t guess.

I used to play this game a lot with my sisters and brother, friends, and adults.  The probability of choosing the correct hand is fifty-fifty; of course, it is!  But I could “guess” the correct hand about 75% of the time; far more than statistical mathematics would have predicted.  Like a good leader, I didn’t rely on guessing but on other factors that lead to a greater chance of success.

Good leaders ‘see’ indicators of where that object might be.  Those are the leaders who are better at holding a team together, rallying them around a common goal, and accomplishing their mission.  They see more than what is obvious.  That is what leaders do.

There is a long list of leadership professionals who will give the same advice.  “Don’t guess,” they will tell you, “just do.”  My best friend and I took the U.S. Army Infantry Advanced Course together as Captains.  It was a tough course, and I was just happy to graduate; while my friend, Jonathan Peters, wanted to be the honor graduate.  He was fond of saying to me, “don’t guess, just do.”

Captain Peters would smile while giving me his clever advice.  It wasn’t until after we completed the course that I understood what he was telling me.  It was like the kid’s game of chance we played; predicting which hand held the object of our attention.  Success was being able to predict better than everyone else.  It meant going outside the randomness and confines of the rules to see other things that provided an advantage.

As a child playing the chance game, I looked at the face of others who played the game with me.  Before choosing, I would focus on their eyes and mouth, then point to one hand and then the other.  Detecting a change of expression when I pointed to one hand would up the odds that this was the correct hand holding the object.

We used to play this game with nickels (a paltry amount but a huge sum in the late 1950s when it would buy me a bottle of Coca-Cola).  I came out ahead most of the time, much to the chagrin of my childhood friend, Wilson.  He never figured out my secret.  True to form, my military friend Captain Peters was the class Honor Graduate.  I bought him a Coca-Cola to honor his achievement.

Good leaders don’t guess.  They use other indicators of what the answer might be.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “Leaders Don’t Guess

  1. Drew Dill

    I’m sure there has been much written about this idea that ‘leaders don’t guess.’ But, I think that we should discuss ways to improve our chances of winning/succeeding in whatever we consider important. Gen. Satterfield wrote about the chance game as a child. Great start point. What I think is important to improve our chances, is to look at the whole picture and try not to make a decision too early. “Feel” the game, so to speak. Try to build a complete picture rather than jumping on what seems best early in the game. Otherwise, we could be mislead to a bad choice.

  2. Ronny Fisher

    Here’s a prediction you can take the bank: Guessing isn’t going to solve any of our problems. And neither is blaming the other guy, by the way.

  3. Bryan Lee

    Personally, I too believe that leaders do ‘guess’ some of the time. It’s just that when important decisions are made that we don’t do due-diligence to get all the info we can to improve our chances. Have a great weekend, everyone!

  4. lydia truman

    TGIF. I’m glad that it’s Friday and I am off this weekend. I’ll be visiting my son in Arizona. What have already been planning to do is to watch a few movies. But, like others have noted here, we don’t do it randomly. Rather, we read movie reviews and talk to friends who have similar tastes. This means we will increase our odds of seeing a movie we like. This is what successful life is about. Increasing your odds of success.

  5. AutisticTechie

    Gen. Satterfield, hey, thanks for another great article. I’ve really been enjoying my reading of your blog.

  6. Army Captain

    I think that real leaders do guess and yet despite not always having indicators that improve the odds, there are times where making a choice is simply better than doing nothing.

  7. Maureen S. Sullivan

    If I point a gun at a paper target and pull the trigger without much other thought, the odds of hitting it are good. But if I actually take careful aim, I will hit the target nearly 100% of the time. This is the lesson for leaders. Aim, figure out the ‘indicators’ of where the object will be, and you will be rewarded more often than not.

    1. Greg Heyman

      Spot on. Thanks Maureen! We are always trying to improve our odds. Do so and you will be a better person but don’t succumb to illegal, immoral, or unethical methods.

  8. Max Foster

    Sadly, however, people randomly guess all the time. If the issue is of import, then the results are often (50-50) unpleasant and can be damaging. Frankly, some people have the odds stacked against them because they aren’t smart enough to emulate those who are successful or they are just too lazy.

    1. Nick Lighthouse

      Well said, Max. So many people make bad choices and yet they blame society or their parents for their own stupidity and laziness. Sounds like a socialist to me. Don’t believe me, just ask Hillary Clinton or socialist Bernie Sanders.

    2. Wilson Cox

      Yes, good one Max. Your comments are always on target.

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