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The Art of Strategic Decision

February 17, 2020

Eliot A. Cohen, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS

Dean Eliot A. Cohen presented a lecture on the art of strategic decision, a course he used to teach, with the aim to share with current students his insights of strategic virtues. The Dean’s main message emphasized that strategic decision making requires not so much skills in the narrow sense but qualities of character that are not at all intellectual. To demonstrate this Dean Cohen began his lecture by outlining seven big questions that strategy requires one to reflect on.

The starting point of strategy consists of knowing the environment; not the idea of having perfect knowledge but recognizing the fundamentals, having a sense of proportion about yourself as well as being aware of the interconnectedness of circumstances. Furthermore, identifying the ‘enemies’ entails understanding why they are doing what they are doing and why are they committed in a way their predecessors weren’t. Acknowledging the ends of decision-making is also a far more complex and subtle process than what people think. It is about conducting something that is materially possible but that is also politically and psychologically feasible. This is why means in strategic decision-making, the tools that are available, consist of selecting those that involve two kinds of expertise, a linear technical and non-linear political expertise. The fifth and sixth questions highlighted by the Dean consisted of thinking in terms of sequence and priority; what comes first and second and what is really important. Strategic thought and strength lie in the ability to divide the past, present, and future into analytically measurable chunks. Lastly, the most important question has to do with the theory of victory: a version of history you can tell, a plausible story of how you get from one end to another.

The Dean concluded his lecture by underscoring the importance of execution in strategy, which requires a combination of an eye for essentials, honesty, empathy, humility, and courage that is found within the core of who you are.