Michael O. Leavitt: Keys for life's big decisions

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 1:43 a.m. MDT

Weber State students enter the Dee Events Center for the commencement ceremony. (Jonathan Mcbride, Weber State University) Weber State students enter the Dee Events Center for the commencement ceremony. (Jonathan Mcbride, Weber State University)

Michael O. Leavitt is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. Leavitt served in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush and as a three-time elected governor of Utah. He is the founder and chairman of Leavitt Partners. The following is excerpted from a commencement speech delivered on April 22 at Weber State University.

Late in the spring of 2003, I joined a PBS crew to fly over publicly-owned land in central Utah and discuss its appropriate use. When we landed to refuel in Price, my cell phone came alive with messages. One was from my assistant, who indicated that the White House Office of Presidential Personnel wanted to speak with me.

I slipped into a corner, hoping to gain a bit of distance from the reporters traveling with me. The woman I spoke with explained that a member of the president's cabinet had resigned, and it was her duty to develop a list of names for him to consider. Was I willing to be considered?

Former Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt is sworn as secretary of Health and Human Services at the White House in 2005. (Associated Press) Former Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt is sworn as secretary of Health and Human Services at the White House in 2005. (Associated Press)

I was nearing the conclusion of my 11th year as governor. I loved the job. I told her my initial reaction was negative. There were a dozen reasons it didn't make sense. "But," I said, "I'm surrounded by reporters at the moment. Could I call you later?"

The call, though short, triggered a life-changing decision process.

We all make life changing decisions. These decisions, even more than our circumstances, define the outcomes of our lives. Decision making is a defining competency that requires practice and thought. Over time I've developed and put into practice five keys to decision making.

Key One: Write a decision memo.

In a subsequent conversation with the White House, I agreed that while I was doubtful of my interest, I would at least discuss it when I was in Washington the following week. Over several days, I began to do what I almost always do when weighing important decisions or problems: I wrote myself a memo.

Writing a decision memo forces one to think clearly and honestly. It does not have to be elegant or well written. This isn't about literature; it's about seeing an entire picture, finding gaps in logic and truly understanding a choice.

Key Two: Shrink the uncertainties.

In big decisions, uncertainties create anxiety. Though one can never see the future perfectly, it is possible to reduce uncertainty and to minimize risk. As I wrote this decision memo to myself, I listed the things I could not know for sure. There were many.

What about my agenda as governor? Had I accomplished what I set out to do? Would the people of Utah feel proud or abandoned? There were obvious family considerations. Would Jackie like Washington? How would my eighth grader feel about moving? Would I like the job? Was I really ready to end my service as governor? What could I accomplish in the remaining fifteen months of the president's term? Would he be re-elected?

One at a time, I began to sort through each uncertainty and develop a working assumption of how that uncertainty would play out. The goal of this exercise was to shrink uncertainty by stating, in writing, how that uncertainty would likely unfold. Just like a puzzle becomes more clear with each adjoining piece, the future becomes more clear when you replace uncertainties with beliefs.

Key Three: Examine your bias.

Sometimes we make bad decisions because we are motivated by the wrong things. We make important decisions at times when our judgment is clouded by appetites or passions like anger, fear, ego, greed, ambition or infatuation. Depression, for example, impairs good decision making by distorting reality. Don't make major decisions in the midst of a significant emotional low. Understand and manage your biases.

Key Four: Seek the counsel of others.

This decision was not one I could talk about openly with very many people. Absolute confidentiality was necessary. Nevertheless, I was able to seek the advice of a few people I knew I could trust and who I thought would provide me with honest perspective.

One man, a former governor, was searing in his criticism of life in Washington. I knew his bias and factored in the uniqueness of his situation. It was a sobering conversation, but a perspective that was important to hear. Others encouraged me to take the job if for no other reason than my country called.

Key Five: Decide to decide.

Big decisions are hard. For that reason, I've learned to set up time frames to govern decision-making processes. Once I've set a date to decide, I allow only two situations to push the deadline back. If I am still getting valuable new information or if my options are expanding, I will defer.

Another staple of deciding to decide is to allow time for a decisions to cure before finalizing them. When I appointed judges, for instance, I always waited until the next morning to call a candidate and make a public announcement. Knowing I could change my mind if I didn't feel good about it freed me to make the decision, even though I rarely changed my mind the next morning.

Interestingly, the decision to join the president's cabinet is one where letting it cure made a difference. After the meetings at the White House, I told the president's staff, "I will likely decline, but I want to think about it for a few days."

Over the weekend, I read through what had become a rather lengthy memo to myself. As I did, a new thought came to me. I took a yellow pad and drew a month-by-month graph for the remaining months of my term. On the graph I wrote what I had left to do and charted my capacity to make a unique contribution. I saw that my capacity to start anything new was limited and nearly everything I had going was complete.

I began to get excited about what Lt. Governor Olene Walker could do as a fresh, new governor. She would be Utah's first female governor. She was extremely capable. People would rally to new initiatives she proposed because of their admiration for her and the sense of history she represented.

The next day I called the White House and said, "I am very happy as governor, but if the president asks me to serve in his cabinet, I will." My decision had been made. I felt the relief of knowing I had reached the right conclusion, and I spent the next five and a half years contributing in a new way and feeling energized by the experience.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company