Nebraska farm boy Arleigh Burke rose from an ensign fresh out of the Naval Academy to Chief of Naval Operations, the top job in the U.S. Navy. Along the way, he successfully expanded the scope of his understanding of leadership, from the perspective of a ship, a squadron, and a fleet, to a Navy with new technologies and an evolving strategic role. There is so much that a privacy professional can learn from his example, and much of it is captured in something he told a subordinate after an engagement in Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands in March 1943. He said,

“The difference between a good officer and a poor officer is about ten seconds.”

I reflected on this quote, and got to thinking about how it might apply to the work of a privacy leader. Of course, as privacy pros when we have to make quick decisions “under fire” we mean it figuratively: We are not literally getting shot at in a life or death situation. Still, I thought about what it would take for a privacy leader to make decisions like a great officer.

Burke’s destroyer was part of a small task force out in Blackett Strait on a moonless night, hoping to go unnoticed before pounding two Japanese airfields. His ship was in the lead, and his radar operator reported a unidentified ship up ahead. Burke asked if the radar operator was sure; it could be a rock. He wanted to be absolutely sure it was a ship before he expended expensive torpedoes. Eventually he fired a salvo of five torpedoes. By this time, other U.S. ships behind him had picked up the two Japanese destroyers on radar, and opened fire. Between Burke’s torpedoes and the fire of the other ships, the two Japanese destroyers went to the bottom, and the ensuing assault on the airfields was successful.

Everyone was happy about it except Burke. He was castigating himself for delaying his first shots, not trusting his radarman, and allowing his fellow ships to expose themselves by opening fire, identifying themselves as targets that the enemy otherwise might not have known were there. Burke’s frustration with himself led to his quote about the need to act quickly.

What are the factors here that matter? What is needed for a good, quick decision? What does a privacy leader need to know to make decisions well?

Know your stuff.
On another occasion, Burke told his subordinates, “This ship is built to fight. You had better know how.” Hard work and preparation are essential. For the privacy pro, it is essential that you know your topic well. You need to know the laws or other compliance requirements you need to meet. IAPP training and certification can help with that.

But knowing the law isn’t enough. Of course, you need to know how your organization collects and uses data, how the technology works, how the business processes work, who the leaders are, how decisions are made. Knowing how things work is table stakes for good decision-making.

Know what you don’t know, but still be able to act.
There is a world of difference between a guess and an educated guess. There is a difference between a shot in the dark and a shot when it is dark.

Most decisions are made – have to be made – with incomplete information. You must be willing to act with incomplete information. You will never have enough information, and many people miss opportunities waiting for perfect information. More accurately in many instances, many people procrastinate about decision-making by rationalizing that they don’t have enough information. But so often opportunities can be missed.
Decision-making is not necessarily a moment of truth. It is iterative. Air Force training for years referred to the OODA Loop, developed by flying ace Col. John Boyd: Observe, orient, decide, act. Then do it again.

Know the context in which you operate.
We do not act in isolation; we act in interaction with others. For Burke in this battle, he needed to know his enemy, their tactics, their motivations, and their mission. Why were they likely there, and what were they likely to do? For the privacy pro, you need to know the perspectives of others in your organization who might have competing views. Plan for different scenarios. Your actions and decisions will have reactions. Plan for them. Try to understand the motives and needs of others.

Know your team.
It would be reassuring to know that if you make a quick decision that your team can carry it out. That of course means you have hired well, you have trained your team, and led by example. You must trust them and they must trust you. In part, Burke was angry at himself because he had not initially trusted his radar operator. Your team members have an obligation to tell you what they think, and you should listen since presumably you hired them for their abilities. You have an obligation to lead, decide. It is wise to get input from the talented people on your team, but it’s your job to provide direction.

Know the mission clearly.
You can’t hit a target you can’t see. Sound, quick decision-making requires crystal clarity about the mission, objectives, etc. If you’re not sure what you are fighting for, you are unlikely to get it.

Burke was so concerned about the mistake he nearly made in this battle that he studied the problem further, looking at similar engagements. When he had his data, he proposed a change in tactics to the commanding admiral. This resulted in a change in the standing order for destroyer commanders. Instead of having to make the decision that Burke made (and felt he took too long to make) about whether and when to fire on the enemy, Burke suggested that U.S. ships would be more effective and survivable if ship commanders are authorized to engage on first sight of enemy, rather than report in, wait for orders, and delay. This turned out to be a successful approach. When all the commanders knew this default, they acted faster and were more successful.

Burke identified a problem, studied it, took a recommendation to his superiors, and sold them on it. These are all essential skills for a successful privacy leader. In this particular instance, he facilitated a change that made quicker decisions easier for others in the organization as well. Think about systems and processes where you work where it can be hard to get decisions made. Perhaps you can find places where if the default decision can be changed, decision-making quandaries can be reduced for people who are less adept at decision-making, all to the benefit of the org. For your own organization, think about changes that would enable and empower quick action by your subordinates.

It requires the skill of being able to study a problem and actually frame the issue and tee up the decision – Options, pros and cons, and have a recommendation. You are the expert – lead to the right conclusion.

Decision-making requires confidence.
Burke was a fountain of wisdom. He also said,

“Any commander who fails to exceed his authority is not of much use to his subordinates.”

Being able to make quick and effective decisions also depends on confidence. Maybe you feel like you don’t have enough confidence to take on the responsibility of the decision. But if you know your stuff, you know what you don’t know, you know the context and your opponent, and you know your own team, those are all a pretty good foundation for making a confident decision. Knowledge can be very reassuring.

Burke continued to evolve his leadership as his roles got bigger. He never stopped learning. He learned about naval aviation, allowing him to be chief of staff to a fleet commander. He learned about nuclear technology after the war to help grow the modern navy. He learned how to evolve from commanding a crew on a ship to squadrons of ships. He learned to shift his leadership perspective to the strategic aspects of leading a force.

A privacy pro must follow a similar evolution. The privacy leaders who are most effective are strategic partners for their businesses, to help answer the basic question of What are we going to do? A growing leader needs to know the answer to the question, “What am I going to do, right now?”

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