Greg Bustin reveals his insights on decision-making gleaned from 52 inspiring historical events.
- The two things you need when making a decision
- The Seven F’s tool that can help you decide what you want
- How to fight cognitive bias
For more than two decades, Greg has been skillfully counseling a diverse roster of innovative companies. He’s a trusted advisor to savvy CEOs and key leaders—steering three executive groups and providing one-on-one coaching as a Master Chair for Vistage International, the world’s largest CEO organization.
Organizations around the world invite Greg to conduct private workshops and deliver thought-provoking keynote addresses on leadership, strategy, conflict resolution and Workplace Accountability.
He’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Financial Executive, and more.
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Greg, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Thank you, Pete. Glad to be here.
I’m glad to have you. And I think the first thing we need to hear about is your drumming career.
Well, it started in early age. I probably started on pots and pans like most drummers, and then got a little drum set when I was six. And I was in a marching band, an orchestra, jazz band, a rock band, I’ve kind of I’ve kind of done it all. Now, I pretty much just play the steering wheel.
Safely, I assume?
Oh, yeah, both hands on the wheel, in the 10 and 2 positions, right?
That’s good, that’s good. Cool. Well, so I want to hear about your book, How Leaders Decide. I liked the format in terms of all the different stories, but I guess I’d like to start with a bang. What’s maybe the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made when you were putting together the book?
Well, I ended up looking at more than 25,000 events, and you go, “Wow, how do you get it down to 52?” Because the format of the book, as you alluded to, it’s really bite-sized chapters, because the leaders that I work with, like I’m in that kind of, “Hey, I can read this in 10 minutes and reflect, and I can either put it down or keep going.”
So how did I get it down to 52, and of the 52, what’s the one you most want to know about? I think the one that’s most surprising to me is the story of Mary Edwards Walker. She is the only female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. So, 3,522 recipients, and she is still the only female ever to be awarded this honor, which is the military’s highest honor for bravery. And her story of bravery and courage and sacrifice took a lot of twists and turns, starting with the fact that, you know, as a woman, in the 1850s, she wanted to pursue a career as a doctor. And you know, she was told all the reasons why that wouldn’t happen.
Her parents were very encouraging, and she actually became one of the first women to graduate from medical school, and about the time she graduated, civil war was breaking out, and she wanted to volunteer. And she was turned down, not really because of her capability, but because of her gender. And ultimately, her persistence and her desire to serve landed her the position — first behind the fighting, and then ultimately she was placed on the battlefield. And from there, she even volunteered to become a spy for the North and went on some spying missions in Georgia.
And so she was awarded that in 1864. So as the war was nearing its end, she was awarded that — and it can only be awarded by presidents. And so, she made it through all the naysayers, all the bureaucracy, all the males, and eventually was awarded that. It was taken away from her, actually. It was reinstated by President Jimmy Carter.
So almost, you know, 100 years lapsed — or more than 100 years — between her receiving it, having it taken away, and then having it reinstated. And to this day, as I say, she is the only female Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. And I knew nothing about her. I just stumbled into it as I was researching the book.
Well, that is deep, surprising and fascinating. I did not know this, and now I do. And so now, since we’re all teed up about, you know, this person and the story, what’s sort of the leadership decision-making takeaway from that one?
Well, I think it’s in multiple parts. First, she did not care who got the credit, and so that she was really driven just by the desire to serve our country and help her fellow human beings. I think it’s also obviously a story of persistence. And when you look at a lot of these stories, I mean, you see that as a common theme.
My challenge in writing the book is that, “Okay, well, you can have every chapter. If they’re 50 to 60, it’s like, guess what? The lesson is persistence”, because these folks all fought their way through some adversity or another. But I think her selfless desire to serve, was a cool thing.
And you know, the lesson is, if you’re a leader, how would those people in your organization rate your fairness and consistency when evaluating performance? And the question is, do you play favorites? Mary Edwards Walker had to overcome stereotypes, favoritism, double standards, and yet she persevered and triumphed.
That’s good. Thank you. Well, so then that’s one key theme that kind of weaves through the book, how leaders decide. Any other kind of main messages that you’d like to emphasize?
I think that what you’ll read in this book, many people say, “Look, I knew about the story of the Titanic,” or “I knew about Winston Churchill,” or whatever the case may be. It’s really the story behind the story that people find interesting.
I think the main message is that leaders are in the decision-making business, and all of these people, some of these were reluctant leaders, some of them just found themselves at a time and place where their integrity was confronted, their values were challenged.
And you know, what you see in the book is that essentially, these people made the decisions that they made, because number one: they were grounded in a very firm belief of understanding where they stood on issues and matters of integrity. And the other is that they also knew very clearly what it is that they wanted.
Okay, that’s good. Well, so then I’d love it, maybe if we could jump into another one of what you think is perhaps the most illustrative story out of your 52 collection that really is eye-opening and transformational for the typical corporate professional who wants to just make better decisions.
Well, I got a question at a book signing event: “What chapter would you recommend that your daughter read?” And I said, Well, I’d let her read the whole book and let her make her own decision.” And when pressed for it, I actually put another female that I had profiled: Marie Curie. And I picked Marie Curie because I think that the transformational aspect, or the applicability to today’s leader, whether they’re an aspiring leader or a seasoned leader, is that Marie Curie was raised in an environment where learning and improvement was strongly encouraged.
I mean, ultimately, her family, despite severe hardship, growing up in Russia-controlled Poland, raised a teacher, two doctors, and a Nobel Laureate. And that really speaks to the kind of environment where leaders perform well. And I think the other piece that’s transformational is that when she married Pierre Curie.
Pierre came to the conclusion that Marie’s work was actually more applicable and more important than the work that he was doing. And so, he was willing to set aside his work and become Marie’s partner. And so, if you think about that, if you’re a leader, I think that one of the ways that you’re encouraged as a leader is to be a part of a team that supports one another.
And certainly, Marie Curie had that in the form of her husband, where again, in a traditional role of typically males being the dominant force in a relationship, Pierre recognized Marie’s capability, and was willing to essentially take a backseat.
And I think that in today’s environment, having that kind of support and encouragement from your peers, your supervisor, whatever, can really cultivate and bring out the best in today’s leaders.
That’s handy, certainly. So that humility and knowing when, “Okay, I’m going to take a backseat and just support them,” and that’s a winning move. Certainly, that’s a great takeaway for many environments. So I guess I’d love to hear, in terms of — you got 52 stories in here, we’ve talked about a couple of… right up front, you know, of all the suggestions that you have unearthed from these tales, when it comes to improving decision making, what do you think is the practice or approach that can offer you the greatest bang for your buck, if you will, like the most decision quality boost per hour or unit of effort?
I think that it starts with what I’ve called seven behaviors that distinguish decisive leaders. And so one of those is believing deeply. So there’s a chapter about Walt Disney, and his brother, Roy, has a quote, “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” And I think that speaks loudly today. If you know what your values are, the decision should be easy. You may not like the answer, but the answer will be clear. So believing deeply is the first of those behaviors.
Secondly, confronting reality, openly. We looked at JFK and 18 months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is the the event that’s profiled in the book, was the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.
And in hindsight, Kennedy realized that he had not opened up the discussion more broadly; people had been pigeonholed in in their thinking, and there was a lot of peer pressure to let the conventional wisdom of the CIA take its course. And what happened was that it ended in disaster.
And so when the Cuban Missile Crisis came around, Kennedy said, “Look, I’m learning from those mistakes. We’re going to bring in lots of people, we’re going to get fresh ideas, we’re going to bring in outside experts.” He even decided, “I’m going to leave the room sometimes, because I know that I can have an influence on people needing to say what needs to be said,” and he asked a lot of questions. And those questions were all aimed at confronting reality, facing the facts. There’s a need to cultivate curiosity.
And we talked about 3M and William McKnight, and the culture that he instilled inside of 3M, to make 3M, one of the most innovative companies in the world. There’s a notion of engaging meaningfully. And we look at the Apollo 13 crash and how these guys on the ground had to solve a problem 250,000 miles out in space with only the materials they had, and they had to bring everyone together under the crunch of time to do that.
There’s an element of deciding speedily, and then the need to adapt proactively. So all of those things, way into it. I think it really goes back to knowing what you want. And in my talk with the executives that I work with, what ultimately comes from these discussions is that it’s not as hard to achieve what it is that you want.
What’s harder than achieving what you want is knowing what you want. And so I think that before you can make decisions, again, I come back to those two things: You’ve got to know what your values are, and you got to know what you want. And I think pound for pound, that’s how you get through to get more of what you want, and how you make better decisions.
Understood, yes. Great. Let’s talk about that. How does one get to know what they want? And I imagine the true depth of what you want is often not what leaps to mind off the surface?
Well, you’re exactly right, Pete. I’ve actually got a form on my website that your listeners can download for free. It’s called “The Seven Fs.” It’s an F as in Frank.
The mind is a funny thing. Sometimes we need to let it roam freely. Other times when you let it run so freely, you’re just overwhelmed by the number of choices. And so what this seven F’s document does is it really forces people to say, “Okay, when you think about your friends, what do you want when it comes to your friends? When you think about financial? What does it look like when you talk about financial? When you think about your fitness, what does that really mean?”
When you start putting some definition around those things, “fun” is one of the Fs, right? When you when you talk about fun, you know, what does that look like? And so when you start compartmentalizing these aspects of your life, it really allows you to get more specific about deciding what it is that you want.
You know, my dad had a phrase that I loved. I mean, I was talking to him one day; it was after I’d started my own business. And frankly, I wasn’t very happy. I mean, my name is on the door, I’ve got all these people working for me, and I’m making a lot of money. I’m not happy. And he said, “Look, do what you love with people you love at a place that you love.” And what I realized is that what I was doing was, it’s like, okay, on the surface, it all looked good, but it wasn’t very fulfilling for me. And it wasn’t very gratifying for me.
And, you know, I asked him. I said, “Well, what about the money?” And he said, “Well, the money will come,” and he was right. And I think a lot of times, you know, we need a setback. Or maybe we need a shock. Or maybe we just need to take the time to reflect.
I was talking with an executive just a couple of days ago, and he said, “You know, the job that I’m in, I’m not sure I’ve trained all my life for this job. But I’m not sure that this is what I want.” And I said, “Well, what do you think you want?” He said, “Well, I’m not sure.” And I said, “Well, I would keep doing what you’re doing, and doing it the best that you can. And I do believe that over time, something will reveal itself to you.”
Just to be clear, I don’t think that you can say, “Okay, I’m going to check everything that I’m doing and go off on some wild hare.” But I think that you need to be in tune as to whether or not the amount of time that you’re putting in at the workplace is creating the kind of fulfillment that is worth the trade-off of spending time away, perhaps from your family, or a hobby, or just relaxing, or the ability to even take a vacation.
Again, I’ve got this document that’s designed to at least become a catalyst to get people to pause and reflect.
And that’s really how the book is served up. It’s not really a “do these five things, and you’ll make better decisions,” but rather, “Here are some historic events that changed the world’s trajectory. In here are some questions around each of those events that give you the opportunity to pause and reflect and think about how that applies in your life today.”
I dig that. And so when it comes to your own decision making, I’d love to get your view. So I guess you’ve laid out into your core values and what you’re after, and these Fs. And so then, can you share, you know, what are some of these values and things that you want? And a decision that you approached recently that flowed?
Yeah, that’s all well, that’s great. You’re making me eat my own dog food. And I love it. I had an opportunity. So I run these chief executive groups for small and mid-sized organizations. The smallest is probably $10 million in revenue a year, 25 employees, the largest is multi-billion, with employees, you know, all over the country, in some cases outside the U.S.
And in one of these groups, I had a couple of these CEOs that were exhibiting what I would call bad behavior. And I knew it, and I tolerated it for longer than I should. And really, the tough decision that I made ultimately was, “this is not fun for me, these guys don’t share my values.” My values are about helping people grow and learn and develop and improve. And these couple of guys were not sharing in that. And they were pretty disruptive in the meeting.
And we would get together once a month. And you know, we’re talking about 14, 15 people around a table. And finally, I just said, “Look, I’ve had enough.” And I talked to them about it, and I talked to several people: I talked to my wife about it, I talked to a couple of other folks that I trust, and the answer was consistent. It’s like , well you’ve got to do what you need to do. You already know, you just need to do it. And what I was afraid of was that they would leave and it would put the rest of the group at risk, because I knew that, you know, three or four people would leave the group.
And finally, I just said, “Look, that’s it. I know what I need to do, I just need to do it.” And that’s actually a quote that I have from Amelia Earhart: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity,” right?
And so I knew what I needed to do. And I had a conversation with these two CEOs. And they left the group, and four of their friends went with them. And I thought, “Okay, this is it.”
That was about a year and a half ago. I’ve rebuilt the group, everybody’s there for the right reason. I’ve never been happier. The people who were there are all bought in on what it is that we’re trying to do. But it was a moment of truth. And I think that when you look at some of these decisions, you know, sometimes what happens is, you make the decision when the pain of doing nothing is greater than the pain of doing something, right?
So in my case, it’s like, “Look, I could keep doing this, and keep kicking the can down the road.” But I was not looking forward to those meetings. I could tell that there were other folks around the table who were not happy with that behavior. And if I didn’t do something, then I might lose the entire group. As it was, I lost half the group. And we’re better today for it. And so I think that, you know, one of the things about decision-making is that doing nothing is a decision to not act. And so that was the decision that I was choosing to make. And so finally I just said, “Okay, I know what I need to do. And I’d rather just do something and see what happens, as opposed to continuing this and not having a productive experience.”
I hear you. Well, not that we need all the lurid details, but I think it would be helpful if we had this little bit of a sense for what do we mean by “bad behavior.”
So there were two or three things. So there was a lot of judging that was going on with some of the folks. And so this idea is that you’re coming in here, you’re all from noncompetitive businesses, and the ideas that you can share openly, because, look, everybody generally, when it gets down to it, is talking about the same thing. You’re talking about customer issues, you’re talking about employee issues, you’re talking about money issues, and you’re trying to make your business perform at a higher level.
And you know, people would come in and open up and somebody would just kick the heck out of them, you know? And it’s like, look, it takes some level of courage to open up your heart and say, “Look, I’m scared,” or “I’m screwing up,” or “I’m not sure,” or whatever. And you know, these guys would go, “Oh, you know, well, that’s easy,” or whatever. There was also the idea that when you looked at their business, they weren’t really moving forward. And so, it was really, “Hey, let’s come in, let’s have some yucks, you know?”
“Let’s talk tough, and then let’s figure out where we’re going to go afterwards for cocktails.” And it’s like, look, that’s fine to do that. But really, our purpose here is to help each other get better. And so there were just some things like that, that were counter to the kinds of values that I was looking at, which is, “Look, let’s be authentic, let’s be honest, let’s be supportive. And let’s be all in on this,” because the money is the least of what these guys are paying. These guys are giving up.
I say, “Guys, guys and gals, are giving up a day out of their life, and they’ll never get that time back. So it’s up to me to make sure that we’re making the best use of that time.” And so it just seemed like we weren’t making the best use of that time. And it was becoming evident to some of the other folks in the group that, you know, “these sessions are starting to look like a waste of time for me.”
So anyway, those are some of the things that just say, “Okay, I’m sort of backed into a corner.” And, some of these events just happened to ordinary people, like the first female senator of the United States, got the job because her husband died. But she made the decision. And the decision that was profiled in the book was she made the decision to run again.
Nobody believed that she would run again. Hattie Caraway is the first woman to be elected a U.S. senator. So I think there’s a lot of instances where people were just living ordinary lives, and then an opportunity came their way. And they had the opportunity to step up and do the right thing. And that’s what really distinguishes a lot of these decisions.
Oh yeah, that’s good stuff. I’m a sucker for stories, aren’t we? The human condition, and say, so you wisely put together 52 of them, as opposed to, you know, a list of cognitive biases and the scientific research for them, which you would make a good book for me. I’d like that.
Well, you can write it, Pete.
I have a poster of cognitive biases in my home office. Fun fact. Anyway, when you share the feedback, like, “Hey, this is what I’m seeing with regard to, you know, how the meetings are going and how you’re behaving and the implications of it.” And they just sort of stormed off. They’re like, “Well, I never, Greg!”
No, I don’t think people like ultimatums. I think they like options. Sometimes, you need an ultimatum. And what I said to these folks is, “Look, you clearly joined for a reason, I just want to make sure that we realign on what that reason was. “Here’s what I’ve been seeing. I think you’ve got a great heart, you’ve built a successful business.”
The behavior that I’m saying is A, B, C, and D. And if that kind of behavior continues, I don’t think this is a great fit. If you want to modify that behavior, and be the kind of person that you were when you joined the group, then that’s a cool thing. And they basically said, “Okay, I thought about it, and I don’t really want to modify my behavior.” And it’s like, “Well, that’s cool, because we’re all about modifying behavior so that we can improve.”
Yeah. Okay. That’s cool. All right. Well, so thanks for taking us there, into that tale. And so there you go, because you are clear on those values about learning, growth development, and you were noticing the reality around you in terms of, “This is starting to be not fun, and not enjoyable, and not helpful.” You went there. So that’s cool.
Are there any key tips, props, questions, scripts, things that are kind of little go-to tips and tricks that you use or recommend to help folks make great decisions consistently?
Well, to be very practical, I think that you’ve got to get into a rhythm or a cadence or a habit. And I think that one of the best ways of doing that is to be very clear on goals.
I’m a big goal person, whether it’s weekly goals, or monthly goals, quarterly goals, annual goals, and I’m talking personally, as well as at an enterprise level, I think that that the people that are successful, are driven by something, and they are driven toward something. And I think that from a practical standpoint, the best way to do that is, “Hey, make a list, block time on your calendar, get some people around you that you trust, who may actually think different than you, or think differently than you so that you can bounce things off of them.”
I think that being clear on what you stand for, being clear on what you’re after, and then having these very specific mile markers in the road that show, “Hey, I’m making some progress toward this, because all of those involved decision making,” it involves, “Okay, do I do this? Or do I do this? Is it a trade off? Is it a priority? Do we have the time for this? Do we have the money for this?” Whatever the case may be.
And I think that when you have that clear picture, you’re willing to give up things or make sacrifices in order to get that.
I think the best decisions that I make are driven around having, again, a set of values and a set of goals that you’re driving toward. And I think that, you know, one of the best ways to create a new habit is to make a list. I think that is a very powerful way of doing that.
I use gold boards with just sticky notes at the end of every year. And I take my groups through this. It’s like, think about the things that are important to you, when you picture success and why you’re doing what you’re doing. What is it that you’re doing that is going to cause you to be fulfilled?
We’ll write those words down, be very specific about the type of fulfillment that you’re looking for. Now write down the categories that you need to work against, in order to make your life fulfilling, and then you put little sticky notes under that. And I mean, people love that. They’re like, we present them at the end of every year, I check up on them monthly, and they’re like, “Hey, check that off. I’ve got a new sticky note now.” And you know, whether it’s take a vacation or,, be at home three nights a week to have dinner with the kids, or whatever it is, you know, make it real and make it visible.
And do you have any quick tips when it comes to cognitive bias, how to fight that well?
Well, I think the way you fight it well, as I’ve already alluded to, is you’ve got to have people around you that you trust and respect that are willing to say, “Look, there’s a blind spot,” or “I don’t think you’re seeing the whole picture,” or, you know, “I think that here’s another point of view that maybe you haven’t considered.” And I mean that’s what these groups that I lead are all about. And it’s about people whose only agenda is to see the other person in the group succeed.
So there’s no commercial gain for that, and the way around the cognitive bias to miss something, is to have other people around that can look at things differently. I mean, our subconscious plays tricks on us. I’m sure you know, that’s what optical illusions are all about. It’s not that I didn’t see it, it’s that the brain doesn’t get it. Right?
And so we need to have other people around us that that we trust and respect to point out those blind spots and to say, “Well, maybe there’s another way of looking at this that you’ve not considered.” And I think that when you do that, that can help at least mitigate some of the biases that we have to make decisions that aren’t always in our best interest.
Thank you. Well, Greg, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
Well, these are my favorite things, because I love what I do. I would invite your readers to go to my website.
There are five lost chapters. You might imagine with all these different historical events, I couldn’t fit them all in, and there are five lost chapters that aren’t fully baked yet, didn’t make it into the book. And your listeners can go to my website and download those for free. And then if they’re interested in wanting a little bit more than they can, they can spring for the book.
All right, perfect. Well, now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Well, I already told you the one about my dad. The other one that I think really describes my work ethic is from J. Paul Getty, which I’m sure you’ve heard: Rise early, work hard, strike oil. It’s like, no excuses. It’s like get up, work hard, and make things happen. And I’m very results-driven. I’m very goal oriented. And that’s a favorite quote for me.
And how about a favorite study or experiment, or a bit of research?
Well, I was just taking a break from research, because I just spent about a year researching this book. I am rereading a book where the centerpiece is an essay by Peter Drucker, and it’s the title of the book, called On Managing Yourself. It’s one of Harvard Business Review’s, 10 must-read books. And it’s just a great reminder of some really practical wisdom by some of our greatest thinkers, and the leadoff hitter is is Peter Drucker.
And how would a favorite tool? Something you use to be awesome at your job?
Well, the tool that I use, I mentioned, is the goal board. I believe in that. I mean I’m a big accountability guy, and in the research that I did on accountability, which is my previous book, is that accountability is not a bad thing. It’s actually a support system for winners. One of the reasons where accountability breaks down, or one of the places where accountability breaks down, is the failure to make performance visible.
And so I believe that, you know, being able to visualize very specifically, “This is where I want to go, these are the things that I’m going to do to get it,” and then to be able to literally either take off the sticky note and put a new one up, or check it off or do it on your computer, that, to me, is very fulfilling.
And ultimately I’m driving toward, you know, something bigger than just a list. I mean, I had a list of the 52 chapters, and I blew it up, and, you know, four foot by six foot poster, and I would check off each chapter as I wrote it. And that was very inspiring to me, to say, “Okay, I’ve gotten another one down, and I’ve only got this much further to go.”
So I use a lot of visual tools, both in my computer, and you know, mounted behind my door in my office so that when I close the door, you know, there it is, and I can see how I’m doing.
Awesome. And tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners?
Well, I think the nugget is, when it’s time to decide, it’s time to decide. You know, things that must be done eventually must be done immediately. And so when you are not deciding, you are effectively making a decision to do nothing. And so I think that, you know, and I told you the story about that, and I did nothing for many, many months until I finally had to pull the trigger.
And so I think, you know, the idea is, again, when you know what you want, the decision should be easy. The decision was easy for me, I just didn’t want to do it. And then finally I did it. And of course I felt better.
And if folks want to learn more and get in touch, where would you point them?
I would point them to my website, www.bustin, B as in boy, U-S-T-I-N.com. bustin.com. There’s all kinds of free tools like the one I mentioned, blogs, exercises. The five lost chapters from my book are there as well, and I would love for folks to visit.
And do you a final challenge or call to action for folks?
Well, that’s fine. Yeah, the final call to action is everybody’s got a decision they need to make, and my question, really, or my challenge would be in the form of a question, which is, what’s the significant decision you must make in the next 60 days? And what do you need to do in order to make that decision? And who can you call on for support, to propel you into making that decision?
Again, most of the big decisions, it’s not as simple as yes or no. Sometimes it is, but it’s not as simple as yes or no, or this or that, or black and white. Oftentimes, there may seem, at least on the surface, a lot of gray. And so having someone that you trust, to bounce that off of whether it’s a mentor, or a coach, or a friend, or a spouse, or a partner, is a good thing.
Awesome. Well, Greg, it’s been a lot of fun. I know you’re taking a break from executives right now to talk to us, so I appreciate that. You’ve got a cocktail hour calling; I wouldn’t want you to miss any more minutes of that.
Well, I’m sure they’re starting without me, Pete, but that’s it. That’s cool. I’ve loved our time together, and I really appreciate you having me on.