She’s considered the most powerful woman in the world. And with good reason. 

Over the years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has outshone world leaders with her rigor, empathy, honesty, and composure in times of uncertainty. But, most importantly, her ability for efficient decision-making during a crisis.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages, the world is looking to Merkel who has battled the health crisis in a rational, scientific, and cautious manner even as some other European countries flounder for direction. 

Merkel, regarded as the de facto leader of the European Union, address Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, on the coronavirus crisis on April 23.

What stood out in the address was the humble acknowledgment that implementing social restrictions was among the “hardest decisions” she’d made in her political career.

Making decisions is tough, especially when they are complex or have a lot riding on them. But it becomes even tougher in the face of uncertainty. The most important principle of making decisions during uncertainty is adopting a mindset of uncertainty. Ignoring the risks and uncertainty while decision-making might make us feel better in the short-run, but the cost to the quality of our decision-making can be immense.

In her 2018 book, Thinking In Bets, Annie Duke, a professional poker player and consultant on decision-making, draws on her experience making big bets at the poker table to outline a series of principles to become more decisive when the stakes are high and certainty is low. 

At the core of Duke’s philosophy is that to be a better decision-maker, you need to adopt a mindset of uncertainty. And she breaks this mindset down into three key components:

1. Acknowledging Uncertainty: When we accept that we can’t be sure, we are less likely to fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking.

2. Redefining Wrong: When we accept the decision-making isn’t about two binary opposing boxes, we are better prepared to manage the continuum between these two extremes and calibrate in the grey zone between right and wrong. 

3. Redefining Confidence: When we stop worrying about confidence as being either fully confident or not at all, and rather start thinking in terms of degrees of confidence, we create the space for people to join us as collaborators. 

Making decisions isn’t so simple in highly uncertain environments where your choice is based on speculation and educated guesses; so it’s a matter of conviction. Let’s deconstruct how Angela Merkel adopts this mindset of uncertainty and “imaginative action” in her address to Germany’s parliament. 

(Disclaimer: While Merkel covered a variety of aspects in her speech, for the purpose of this piece, I have only picked up excerpts to understand Merkel’s decision-making.)

Excerpts from Angela Merkel's SpeechMerkel’s use of the phrase “imaginative action” and her concluding appeal that “it will remain very difficult for a long time. But together, I am convinced of this, after these first weeks of the pandemic, we will manage to overcome this gigantic challenge”  make her the champion of decision-making in times of uncertainty. 

Samta Arora is the Director of Learning Impact at Harappa Education. A nerd at heart, she spends the wee hours on weekends deconstructing actions and words of world leaders – particularly awed this weekend with the thought how most decisions in life are like a game of poker. 

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