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Clarity of Decision Making and the OODA Loop

Leaders make decisions, even if those decisions involve empowering others to make them. Making decisions is what leaders do, and those decisions should manifest themselves in facilitating the speed, quickness and agility with which the organization or team can transition into action.

The speed of the leader determines the speed of the team. The team can only move as fast as the leader's decision making ability allows.

In the 1950’s Korean War a U.S. fighter pilot named John Boyd, flying in air combat against Russian-made MiG’s, studied the superiority in performance of the F-86. The F-86 was a U.S. made fighter with an extraordinary record against the MiG’s. What Boyd discovered was that performance was not related to the aircraft but rather to the quality of the training of the U.S. pilots versus the North Korean pilots. In fact, in many ways the MiG was a superior aircraft to the F-86.

Boyd later moved from the skies over Korea to the Top Gun school in Nevada where he became an instructor, famous for his ability to never be defeated by any of his students. During his time in Korea and Nevada he developed a process for rapid decision making that was ultimately adopted by the Air Force and land forces like the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The process is used today not only by military forces but also by corporations and other organizations.

The process is simple and its success relies on the user’s ability to accelerate, integrate, and repeat the model over and over until it becomes second nature. The process becomes a habit or a new way of thinking that is so ingrained that it’s usage and practice results in increased speed of implementation. Boyd called the process the OODA Loop.

A user of the model may be thought of as engaging in four distinctive although not distinct activities:


A leader must first OBSERVE the environment, which includes his or her people and how they are responding to the circumstances. Observing means understanding what is going on in the circumstances. If not fully understood, it means asking questions to probe for clarity and playing back what is heard to confirm understanding. This is situational awareness.


Second, a leader must ORIENT to decide what it all means. Boyd called this a “many sided, implicit cross-referencing” process involving the information observed and accumulated, prior experiences, and the results of analyses one conducts and synthesis that one forms. This is a bringing together of all the fragmented ideas, information, and impressions generated in phase one. It also means processing what is happening through the lens of the broader strategy and mission. Boyd felt that this was the most important phase because it results in a new orientation.


Third, the leader must reach some form of DECISION. To be clear here, not making a decision is a decision to not act. The timid leader who struggles here will ultimately be boxed in and forced to choose between alternatives they have not chosen themselves.


Fourth, the leader must attempt to carry out that decision. That is, he or she must ACT. By definition a leader moves his or her team to action. It is through action that the team gathers new data points needed to adjust, and the process repeats. The reason Boyd calls it a "loop" is because it is an iterative process. Never is it assumed that once a decision is made that decision cannot be revisited. Implicit in the model is the expectation that the leader and team will constantly adjust as the circumstances evolve.

It is the quickness of the entire cycle, the time it takes to transition from one state to another, that determines the speed and agility of your organization or team.

Additional Leadership Resources:


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