A client company of ours was having a hard time making a gutsy, risky decision that we wanted them to make. “I would love for them to do something that makes them quiver in their boots,” my associate Amanda Cullen said. “They need to do a few things that scare them a bit.”

Saying “yes” to tough decisions is often tough. I thought of this today while talking with my son Noah about an essay he was writing for college class. The subject was Apple’s famous “1984” ad that was used to launch the Macintosh computer in 1984 when it ran during the Super Bowl. This ad, which played on the themes of George Orwell’s book1984 and compared IBM to the controlling Big Brother, is considered one of the most powerful, effective ads of all time. In retrospect, we applaud Apple’s brilliance for creating and running this ad.

But Apple’s 1984 ad almost didn’t run. Steve Jobs, not surprisingly, loved the ad, as did Apple’s sales force when they saw it a few months prior to the Super Bowl. But then Apple’s board of directors got an advance look at the ad a few weeks before the Super Bowl, and the directors, especially the outside directors, didn’t like it. They insisted that the plans to run it be scrapped. Apple’s ad agency, Chiat-Day, was instructed to cancel their commitments for television time they had purchased, which included one 30-second spot and one 60-second spot. They were able to cancel the :30 but were unable to get rid of the :60. Stuck with a 60-second spot, Apple went ahead and ran the 1984 ad.

The ad, as we know, was a huge success, and the Apple board of directors ended up admitting its mistake, inviting the entire Macintosh executive team to a board meeting where they were given a standing ovation by the board.

But … and here’s the big question … how many companies never have a chance to give standing ovations to people who take risky moves because those moves aren’t made in the first place?

At every moment of every day, in companies all around the world, people are opting not to make scary, gutsy moves that cause them to “quiver in their boots.” The experience with a client mentioned at the beginning of this article is not an isolated incident; I see it all the time. When faced with tough decisions, executives most frequently choose the safe road, even when their business situation demands bold action.

The pusillanimous decision-making process that leads to these wimpy outcomes is usually one where each “no” has significantly more weight than each “yes.” Over-cautious executives base their decision-making around the things that could go wrong, instead of focusing on what could go right– even when the downside is dwarfed by the upside.

What about your company? How many 1984 ads has your company elected not to run? How many potentially great ideas were killed before they ever saw the light of day? How many times do a few “nos” win out over a shower of “yeses?”

Warren Buffet said that most of his success can be attributed to about 15 good decisions. The impact we make on the world doesn’t come from the thousands of safe decisions we make but from the few, bold ones. Many of these bold decisions prove to be failures. Many of them have negative consequences. But we can’t succeed without making some of them.

So make sure that you quiver in your boots once in a while. Grab the right opportunities for boldness, and don’t let go.

And here’s a link to Apple’s famous “1984” ad referenced in the newsletter.


  • Jack Altschuler
    Nov 02, 2011 - 05:56 am

    Steve, this one’s a winner.

    And I want to check with you about your closing paragraph. You write,

    “The impact we make on the world doesn’t come from the thousands of safe decisions we make, but from the few bold ones.”

    Are those your words, or Warren Buffett’s? There is genius there.

    Playing it safe can have disastrous consequences, many of them unrecognized because it’s so hard to identify what’s missing (i.e., the bold decision).

    You and I live in the world of business, working with business leaders and so many of them struggle to create a safe yesterday even as the world continues to create a very different tomorrow. Success will come to those bold enough to create their piece of tomorrow, in contrast to those who are waiting for the waves to wash them to a pleasant shore. That’s true in business, it’s true in politics and it’s true in our everyday lives.

  • Steve Yastrow
    Nov 14, 2011 - 23:13 pm

    Jack –

    Thanks so much for your words. Yes, they were my words, not Warren’s. (But it’s his bank account, not mine!)

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