Joe Biden and Executive Decision Making

Joe Biden announced recently that he would not run for the 2016 presidency of the United States. There had been significant speculation from pundits on both sides of the aisle about whether Biden would run and what his candidacy would mean to existing Democratic candidates and Republican challengers. A very interesting factor was the length of time it took Biden to make his decision. Clearly, the death of his son Beau weighed heavily on his decision and prolonged the decision-making process. Even though Biden had a respectable favorability rating in the polls, he elected to decline the run for candidacy. This decision came six months after Hillary Clinton announced her presidential run and led to much discussion in the news about the length of time he took to make that decision.

Although Biden has a history of occasionally making unfiltered and controversial speaking gaffes, he was anything but impulsive and imprudent when making this decision not to run. In typical Monday morning quarterback style, it might be easy to think that Biden’s decision was a foregone conclusion because it seemed too late to organize and raise money. In fact, virtually none of the people close to Biden—including his aides, fellow politicians, friends and, even, the president—suspected that he wouldn’t run. When looking behind the scenes at his process, we see another picture of Biden, which has shown him to be more thoughtful in coming to this conclusion than just making an expedient decision. Let’s take a more careful look at his process to see what we can learn from it.

First and foremost, his current emotional state factored greatly into his decision. In addition to having previously lost his first wife and a daughter in an automobile accident, the recent death of his son Beau was a terrible blow. Biden recognized that he did not have the emotional energy required to run a presidential campaign. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Biden said, “nobody has a right … to seek that office unless they’re willing to give it 110% of who they are.” Biden knew that the toll of dealing with his son’s death and the demands of the campaign were totally at odds with each other. He wisely conducted his own personal “emotional scan” to determine the level of objectivity he had to make such a large decision. His years of service in making executive-level decisions informed him of the importance of being emotionally “in a good space” to make such a momentous decision. Unlike his periodic impulsive speaking gaffes, he became wisely thoughtful and reflective—and more cerebral than emotional—in making this important choice.

In contrast, it is not uncommon for executives to make decisions based more on emotion than on an objective look at the facts. Examples of this include making rash decisions about markets or products to pursue (e.g., Hewlett Packard’s acquisition of Compaq to get into the PC market), betting on new products (e.g., Google Glass), hiring decisions (e.g., the Apple Board placing John Scully into the CEO position following Steve Jobs’ initial termination), or even the expense of moving manufacturing locations (United Technology’s move of its major Otis Elevator plant from Mexico to South Carolina). Unlike these examples, Biden was clear-headed about his decision at this very important time in both the life of the country and in his own personal and political life.

Weighing Risk vs. Benefit: Secondly, Biden reviewed the landscape of the current race. He was “late to the party” financially. Although Biden undoubtedly had several backers waiting on the sidelines to contribute, Hillary Clinton had a $75 million head start. In order to compete with both Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Biden would have had to accelerate both his fund raising and the development of his political organizational at a time when, according to insiders, he had not even opened a bank account for political contributions. He may have been tempted by Clinton’s swings in the polls, but the uphill battle he faced starting so far behind the curve helped him to be realistic, and ultimately pragmatic, about the immensity of the decision. At 74, he would have been the oldest president in our history, if elected. Also, the specter of having failed to win the candidacy twice previously was probably a factor in his final decision.

In considering the myriad of obstacles he faced, Biden ultimately considered the counsel of those he respected, such as James Clyburn (D-SC), looked at the brutal facts he was facing (finances, late entry, personal issues) and made a decision based on a rational examination of the data. In doing this, he set aside ego and political aspirations, deciding instead on what he believed to be the greater good—what was best for his party and for the country.

Decisiveness: Finally, once Biden made his decision, he made it decisively. In typical Biden style, he called a press conference, giving only 10 minutes’ notice, and announced that he would not be seeking his party’s candidacy. He did not prolong the drama, nor was he equivocal in his response (e.g., “I may reconsider at a later date” or “If I am drafted by my constituents”). Biden did not use the occasion of his announcement to weigh in to endorse any candidate, nor did he try to further any other personal or political agendas. He clearly and simply stated his decision and how he made it.

This is a refreshing approach to making significant decisions. It is not uncommon when executives do not get their way that they “damn by faint praise,” or are ambiguous about their possibilities in the future. These are both positions that dilute the potency of the executive and run the risk of undermining that which they only reluctantly support, in the hopes that the decision will fail and vindicate their own vacillation.

Executives could take note of Joe Biden’s decision-making approach at this very important juncture in our political history. Although Biden can be criticized for vacillating prior to making his decision, the method by which he ultimately decided stands as a lesson to us all. When faced with a major decision, consider these questions:

  1. How ego-involved am I in the outcome of this decision? Am I in a good “emotional space” to make the decision, or am I too close to the problem to have any objectivity?
  2. What is the data telling me? Am I able to make a “cold-eye review” of the information in front of me and come to a decision that is pragmatic and in the best interest of the greater good? Am I seeking opinions from reliable and trusted advisors, as well as impartial data, in order to come to the best decision, or am I skewing the data to support my own preferences?
  3. Can I make this decision and move on, or will I second-guess myself and create unnecessary drama for others? Can I leave the execution of the final decision alone without intentionally, or inadvertently, interfering?

By considering these lessons, executives can make more effective decisions and increase their credibility, support, and potency in the process.