May 5, 2017. “5 lessons from former presidents on making good decisions” The Washington Post.

The original article was published at

Many observers have been questioning Donald Trump’s decision-making. But how can we assess presidential decision-making? Presidents make the most consequential decisions in presidential political systems. And yet we know little about why heads of government decide as they do, or about the circumstances that surround their decisions.

And so I asked them. Between June 2011 and May 2012, I interviewed 21 former presidents from eight Latin American countries. Collectively, they offered these five insights into decision-making.

1. Decisions with highly limited information are inevitable

Presidents frequently make decisions for which they are poorly informed. “Every day I had to make decisions with an information deficit,” said Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, president of Costa Rica from 1998 to 2002. As Eduardo Frei, Chile’s president from 1994 to 2000, said:

You get up in the morning with an agenda, and suddenly something comes up and there is little time to solve it. When this happens, it becomes costly to have all the information, and you often cannot postpone decisions.

2. An imperfect decision may be better than not deciding or deciding late

If I have to decide within 24 hours because the world may fall, I may try to ask for some advice, but if it is not possible, well, hell, presidents make decisions all day. You try to get as much information as you can, but sometimes the cost that you pay for not making a decision is enormous.

Vinicio Cerezo, president of Guatemala from 1986 to 1991, even claimed that “one of the fundamental problems of many Latin American governments is that presidents do not decide, or do it late or unclearly. This leads to overwhelming pressures.”

3. Lean on advisers to relieve the pressure

Most of the heads of government interviewed emphasized that they knew that making important decisions was part the job before taking office. And yet several acknowledged that once in power, they could not avoid feeling overwhelmed. Rafael Callejas, Honduras’s president from 1990 to 1994, was categorical: “The presidency is always an administration by the crisis.”

Heads of state routinely rely on advisers who help them understand the direct and indirect implications of the choices at hand. “You surround yourself with people you trust, but they also need to be experts,” said Elías Antonio Saca, the president of El Salvador from 2004 to 2009. Armando Calderón Sol, El Salvador’s president from 1994 to 1999, said, “I always asked my advisers; even when I was almost sure of what I was going to do.”

“In one group were the members of my cabinet, a multi-sectoral group that represented all points of view and served as a strainer of ideas. I convened another group formed by select friends. The third group was a ‘kitchen cabinet,’ with which I met three times a month. With them I reviewed the big picture; we discussed all subjects.”

4. Listen to alternative viewpoints 

One group of leaders said they tried to listen to alternative points of view when making decisions. Saca said heads of government need to “be patient and understand that you cannot win all battles. … To govern, you must listen and let people tell you. And you need the ability to get out of the bubble of the presidency, because many people tell you what you want to hear.”

A second, smaller group of leaders stated that they did not search for much counseling because they knew what they wanted to do. Óscar Arias, Costa Rica’s president from 1986 to 1990 and from 2006 to 2010, stressed that when making decisions “I did not care if they were popular or not. I signed a free-trade agreement with China and never asked Costa Ricans if they agreed.”

Similarly, Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’s president from 2006 to 2009, stated, “I act according to my beliefs.” And Ecuador’s president from 1996 to 1997, Abdalá Bucaram, said: “I do exactly what my conscience dictates, and in that sense, I do not think about tomorrow. … I am a man who, when he believes in something, does it. I completely assume the risks.”

5. Master when to negotiate and when to retaliate

When to negotiate, how to persuade and when to retaliate are options that presidents regularly ponder. Most heads of state interviewed said they think that they had to invest a significant part of their energies negotiating and persuading allies and rival forces.

Costa Rica’s Calderón said that being a soft bargainer allowed him to enjoy a “very strong leadership,” because “in this country, you need to treat people with a lot of affection and respect.”

Arnoldo Alemán, president of Nicaragua (1997-2002), stated that because he did not enjoy a majority in Congress, “what I suffered the most was to constantly be in breakfasts, lunches and dinners negotiating with legislators.”

However, some interviewees emphasized the need to exercise tough leadership, including retaliating against dissenters. “I would be a liar if I were to say that presidents do not retaliate. … Human beings are like that. You step on my foot, and I step on yours,” said Abel Pacheco, Costa Rica’s president from 2002 to 2006. Honduras’s Callejas justified not helping legislators develop their political agenda as a way to “induce” them to follow presidential policies.

Is there any commonality across these five lessons? Yes. They suggest that the more politically experienced an incoming president is, the more he or she can use that depth of knowledge to overcome information constraints, understand when a decision cannot be rushed or delayed, and identify when to negotiate and when to retaliate against dissenters. Experienced politicians also have a clearer idea of when to listen to advisers and how much to be open to alternative points of view.