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TheStreet Open House

Interview: Why Good CEOs Make Bad Moves

Stocks in this article: YHOOBAC

The third thing I notice is how little the so-called experts know about what we're living through. This is concerning for someone proud of America and our economy. Nobody really knows if TARP is the right answer, or how to make banks lend, or whether we should buy up toxic assets. As you can guess, I meet a lot of smart people from business, academia and government at Dartmouth and I can tell you that nobody knows what will work. And yet we're betting hundreds of billions of dollars on this.

Jackson: Well, who's to blame? Is one group more to blame more than another.

Finkelstein: Look, none of us is innocent. From people wanting to buy a bigger house than they could afford, to mortgage brokers, to the press, regulators, and even business schools. We've all got our fingerprints on this.

But is one group more deserving of blame? Yes, the corporate boards ultimately let these companies get in way over there heads on their watch. This wasn't malfeasance. It wasn't illegal. It's just that they didn't provide any oversight. They're supposed to ask questions and not just go along. They decided it was o.k. to accept high risk and high leverage.

I don't mean CEOs get a pass for driving their businesses for big bonuses. However, our system of governance is most to blame.

Jackson: Why do smart leaders make bad decisions?

Finkelstein: The way people actually make decisions is not at all how textbooks say we do and that's what this new book is all about. We don't identify a set of alternatives and weigh them with a best expected value in their head.

Jackson: We're not "rational economic beings" like economists argue?

Finkelstein: No, and we've known that for some time now. The data just do not support that view. We have evolved to make very quick decisions to get along in life. We generally make one plan at a time at the moment. We then run with that solution.

Jackson: Sounds like TARP.

Finkelstein: It's exactly like how TARP was developed. The role of emotions is paramount to making decisions. We have emotional tags tied to each decision we make. Some tags are stronger than others. Our brain remembers the tags that are most positively or negatively charged. We look at these tags with the most emotion when making current decisions and it shapes the choices we make. All this operates at the subconscious level. These processes have been developed by our brain over time and are very useful -- most of the time.

Problems occur when we start to face situations in our current environment which don't match situations we've faced in the past. We need to be conscious of our decision-making process and not succumb to past emotional choices.

There are four red flags we talk about in the book to be on the watch for in real-time, when facing new types of problems: (1) misleading experiences when we think we've encountered a similar situation in the past but misjudge its similarities to the current situation, (2) inappropriate attachments when we are making decisions about a group or people with whom we have past ties, (3) misleading pre-judgments when our past decisions color current decisions, and (4) inappropriate self-interests when we have different personal interests than the stakeholders we represent.

Jackson: Do these red flags apply to Dick Fuld former CEO of Lehman Brothers?

Finkelstein: Sure. With Dick Fuld, the biggest thing he did that ended up hurting Lehman was believing he could fix the mess instead of selling the company sooner. No suitors were willing to take a chance. He'd driven down his negotiating power. John Thain former CEO of Merrill Lynch (acquired by Bank of America (BAC) -- leaving aside his interior decorating decisions -- saw the writing on the wall sooner and sold Merrill at a premium when he could.

Fuld also fell prey to misleading experiences. During the Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) crisis in 1998, there was global uncertainty about what would happen and Lehman and Fuld got themselves through that. He came out looking like a hero. His experience taught him that he could do it again -- and there were lots of people in the press, earlier in 2008, who agreed with him. He was over-confident. He assumed this time was similar to LTCM. But this crisis was far more severe.

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