The Suicide Bomber Approach to Decisions

Conviction, of choice and reason, has been one of the hardest qualities of good leadership for me to develop.  An appreciative and empathetic mind can usually find multiple angles from which to appreciate a story, which makes it hard to call someone or something clearly wrong.  Usually if you’ve entered the mind of the other party or explored enough angles, you recognize why the other story may make sense.

Somewhere, there is a line to make between being overly empathetic and a fear of being human – of experiencing guilt.  Hanging up on a decision is a key way to flame out as a leader.  In such a case you become no more than an invisible man, someone who refuses to run the risk of their own humanity.

There can be ways around this.  One of my favorite anecdotes is from Zizek’s story about suicide bombers and their own belief process.  In how he tells it, the suicide bomber isn’t as convinced of their cause as we think they are before they commit their act.  All the way up to it they have doubt weighing on their mind, and it’s only through the act of the suicide that they prove it to themselves that they were actually committed to the cause.

Empathy can muddy the waters in a way that becomes entrenching and ambiguous.  You reach a point over time where you are mired in cognitive dissonance – balancing two opposing mindsets at the same time.  Recently I discovered a possible out to this process.

Picture the mind of a suicide bomber just before he blows himself up.  Do you really think it’s very different than your own at this moment, where you have been teetering over a choice for the last hour or even days?  The severity of his choice is greater than your own, but this is precisely why we shouldn’t expect him to have any easier time convincing himself this is the right course of action.  Where your choice is between sticking to your diet for your upcoming birthday dinner, he is erasing himself from his family and culture, all with the aim of serving his country or cause.

If a person in that situation can commit themselves to an action so severe, while you, with your decades of education and first world dilemmas, deliberate back and forth over some inconsequential matter, how does that reflect on yourself?

The example is important because I think it points to a very special mechanism you have to develop if you’re going to be a leader.  You have to have a “suicide button” for yourself, a button that says you’ve committed to something with absolutely no regard for the consequences of it to yourself.  In fact, you might as well look at the consequences in the same light – certain death.  This becomes like the Stoic practice of negative visualization.  The worst thing that can happen is that you are destroyed.  If you’re prepared for this in light of the choice and the possible benefits for you and the organization, you might just have the conviction needed to carry the group through.

The suicide button is a model for yourself to use against the back-and-forth.  For the bomber, hitting his button is actually the final note by which he convinces himself that he is indeed a believer in the cause.

Where leadership depends so much on a vision-driver, a person who holds the accountability stick, you have to be very sure of your decisions and the ultimate success of your organization, even against overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Your job is to know when and where you must push your suicide button and just dive in.

In a remarkable irony, I originally wrote this draft post several years ago and shied away from publishing for whatever reason, probably based in fear/embarrassment.  I’m just now coming back out of blog hiding, hoping nor to repeat that pattern.


At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meredian, the character of the judge is seen dancing and playing the fiddle in a remote dance hall.  When he dances and skips he tells the world “I am original, I will live forever and I will not be forgotten.”  Throughout the book the judge is quoted numerous times on issues of collective memory and witness, while McCarthy imitates scenes and characters from great works of the past like Moby Dick and the Bible.  It’s fantastic and one of my favorite books.

Blood Meridian is infamous for the murder and violence described in its pages, most of which is at the hand of or impelled by the judge.  Brilliant and skilled in crafts of life and death, the judge wants us to admit that nothing can ever happen unless someone bares witness.  He says “every man is tabernacled in every other” and asks “what could be said to occur unobserved?”  These thoughts, coupled with his view of war as a birthright and a process for culling nature, allow the judge to lead his small band to murder countless indians, bandits, and innocents they find on the road.

It is not to be confused with a moral quest, indeed the judge is suspicious of members of his band who hold a moral lens to the world.  Instead the judge dances through the pages, his victims baring witness to himself and his marauders just before they’re squeezed out of this world, the judge their final observer.  They will not forget him.  Their observation and death reinforce his identity as earth’s great observer and final suzerain.

One of the more interesting ideas I’ve seen lately comes from James March’s analysis of Don Quixote and its implications for leadership.  He’s done lectures and published books and a video about it, but basically he says that leaders do their jobs by fulfilling a strong identity.  External rewards shouldn’t matter and are even counter-productive, once you’ve declared what you are you are beholden to a number of principles that require you to act a certain way.  This idea is no different than problems central to life – early adulthood is usually described as a struggle to find and know ourselves.

An implication of all this is that if your identity and the universe conspire together to put you in a position of leadership, then your view of yourself is going to effect other people.  Maybe you see yourself as a Type A, an alpha male, or an entrepreneur.  Maybe it’s more subtle than that, some of the best leaders would not dare ascribe those archetypes to their name.  To say that we should be on a quest to find ourselves or know ourselves has always seemed a trite and self-indulgent maxim, ennobled by Beat literature and embraced by reflective adolescents everywhere.  But it may be more important than we think.  Leaders make decisions all the time that, given their status, affect more than one person and sometimes millions of people.

Given the example of the judge, and using the lesson from March, we see that one’s identity will have a profound effect on the rest of the world.  Self-examination and guidance toward a healthy identity become moral imperatives if we are to avoid destruction of the type caused by the judge.  He is the more rare and extreme example, but everyday leaders and managers run around with rampant self-delusions, destructive self-images, and poor empathy.  Mistakes by inexperienced leaders can often be coached away, but not when the problems run this deep.  You have to decide for yourself what you are and how you are tabernacled in your own mirror.  And if you are to be ethical and effective, embraced by colleagues and other men, you better put in the work and embark on that great study of how to be.