If Business is War, Jeff Bezos is a lot like Ulysses S. Grant


In 1861, Ulysses S. Grant was managing his brother’s leather goods store in Galena, IL, having retired from the military seven years prior. When the Civil War broke out later that year, he reenlisted and quickly rose through the ranks. The officers Grant replaced on his meteoric rise to Commanding General of the Union Army shared a common trait: they were indecisive. While others fretted and stalled, Grant would study the situation, make the best possible decision and move on.

In an environment like war, where conditions are changing rapidly, and there is constant pressure to react to the enemy, indecision can be fatal. Consider this exchange between General Grant and Colonel James Rusling during the Civil War.  In this excerpt from Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Grant, Rusling presents Grant with a request for a major expenditure:

Grant approved it with startling speed. Rusling asked Grant if he was sure it was correct. “No I am not,” Grant shot back. “but in war, anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong we shall soon find out, and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money and may ruin everything.”

Fast forward to today. Amazon is disrupting entire industries and moving quickly to capture market share. Making decisions in such an environment is challenging. Technology is changing quickly, competitors are on the move, and customer preferences are evolving. How is Jeff Bezos leading Amazon to triumph over competitors in the battle for customers mindshare and wallet? Decisively. Here is Bezos on decision making:

“If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.” – Jeff Bezos

Sounds a lot like Grant. To help Amazon employees speed up decision making Bezos recommends the 70% Rule which ironically came out of the military:

“Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions.” – Jeff Bezos

I think Grant would agree with that one too.

If you find yourself or your organization delaying decisions until you’ve amassed enough data to ensure you’re making the “right choice,” you may be winning the battle but losing the war. Before you put-off making a decision for another day, consider the cost of delay.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ulysses S. Grant I highly recommend Ron Chernow’s biography: Grant.

End Notes:

Grant by Ron Chernow (p. 330)

Jeff Bezos Letter to Shareholders 2016

Sean P. Murray is an author, speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership development and talent management.  Learn more at RealTime Performance.

Follow Me on Twitter: @seanpmurray111

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    • What I like about the quote from Grant is that, for that decision, getting it right was not as important as just making a decision, and he has supreme confidence in his judgment. He’s not overconfident in his ability to make the “right” decision, rather he recognizes the importance of executing and adjusting as he moved forward. And you see the same kind of decision making from Grant on the battlefield during the Civil War too. It’s an interesting case study. When making decisions in rapidly changing environments Bezos and Grant have come down on the same side of the argument, valuing speed over perfection.

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