Spending time with the decision-maker-in-chief

Really worth a read this: a lengthy profile in Vanity Fair of President Obama, by journalist Michael Lewis, who spent six months behind the scenes. In amongst the fascinating vignettes of Obama at rest, work and play (his weekly basketball games where anyone who ‘goes easy’ on the President isn’t invited back, Obama’s favourite place in the White House where he and Michelle sit whenever they can), much of the article focuses on the President’s approach to making decisions, in particular the decision to actively intervene in Libya. In the course of trying to understand Obama’s approach, Lewis makes a second attempt to ask how the current President would prepare someone else to take on a role that involves making hundreds of crucial decisions a day:

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

And then on another occasion the President tells Lewis:

“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.

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