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  • John Chambers, PhD

"Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste”

“Are the Nazis chasing you?” my mother would ask me, sensing my anxiety and nerves before a recital, or a homework deadline, or track meet. “Relax, and you’ll be at peace and more likable. Relax and things work out.” A little girl during the second world war, she nevertheless lived an ordinary life in the U.S. as distant from the Nazi threat as anyone. But maybe having seen her older brother join the service, and perhaps thinking of him while she watched The Mortal Storm or Mrs. Miniver in 1940s Saturday night movie theaters, she placed those horrors at the top of the fear scale, one of many evils that have beset humanity from the beginning of time. But her sobering contrast unfortunately didn’t console me. “No Nazis, Mom, but I didn’t prepare and I’m in trouble.” More intelligent and organized youngsters would have prepared better; whereas my procrastination commanded haste and hurry, and anxiety. Like a recovering addict, I was at least able to recognize that haste was the result of poor planning, and a false hope that I’ll pull it off in the end.

As I entered a career a decade later, I often heard the machismo cliché from some managers, “I’m not here to make friends,” and recalling my mother’s comment I all but dismissed her “be likable” view as naive. Her words were from a secure place, far from the rock’em, sock’em world of business and bad actors, the folks who wanted to beat me and dominate, win and lead. But it was I who was too naive to recognize these were folks mistook bossing and dictating for mobilizing and leading. We grow up with clichés yet ignore their usefulness -- leadership is earned by example. John Adams is attributed with a quote, unsubstantiated, yet deserving of reflection: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” The quote and faulty attribution are also fast becoming a cliché. Yet it is true; we inspire by setting the example.

We set the culture. If the culture is one of constant recognition and reward of heroics, is it not worthwhile to consider why heroics are a required way of life? Shareholders, owners and customers want innovation but they also want predictability – a promise of delivery rigor, timeliness, credibility. What I saw as a young man and now a far-from-young man were corporate cultures of the running man. These were the folks with yellow sticky notes in hand, scrambling to find the person or party who would help me save the day and put out the fire; I guess the phones were down when they did that. But this persona was cited as hard-working, high performing. If we are to standardize that way of life, then reactivity will be culture -- urgency that mirrors a cacophonous disaster epic, resolved by cliffhanger endings, good guys saving the day and fearlessly rushing to the next catastrophe. With those cultures, the next catastrophe was always a day or two away. Urgent responsiveness to competitive pressures are noble. Reactivity is folly.

If I were forced to answer, is any company running like the incessant machine who bested the mythical John Brown? Is any enterprise perfect? Not a one. But the cultures that manifest strength and purpose within a demeanor of calmness are those with staying power.

Leadership stems from boldness in a preacher’s garment, serene and unyielding, stoicism with a confident smile.

Have you seen the job requisitions that seek individuals who “must thrive in a fast-paced environment”? They give me pause. “Fast paced environment.” I suppose that means responsive to the customer and responsive to the competitors. At least I would hope so. But in many cases it’s a catch-all phrase and a clue to the company’s vision, or lack thereof – we are an organization who sees the day as a relay race of baton-passing track stars. Then is it really under control or is it under water? Is it frenetic and hectic for a reason? Fast paced is fine but it often is at the expense of predictable efficiency – and what an expense that can be. Performance is obtained through a painstaking analysis journey, one that demands a culture of trust and deliberation – with an eye toward gap-recognition. Learning organizations are sober and self-reflecting and still fast. They ask themselves, how many times are we going to run through this hallway before we formalize and socialize a method to mitigate the lunacy? Once embedded into the culture, with all members embracing an accountability for rigor, quality shall increase and defects melt away. I remember perusing the bookshelves of business self-help volumes and seeing the quote “scared people scowl while confident people smile.” My mother was right, relax.

That is the great challenge for operational executives who enter the “fast-paced environment” and see firefighting as more respected that fire suppression. They must find the balance of swiftness after they examine the tripwires and demonstrate how the explosions can be avoided in the future.

Follow the process or, when none exists, build the process. Recognize the gaps because running through the hallways is neither repeatable as a competitive edge nor profitable as an operating model. Ben Franklin held that “haste makes waste,” yet he also submitted that a “stitch in time saves nine.” So which is it? It’s a question of balance. As executives, are we expecting our teams, via example, to determine that special balance with scientific and analytic tools and methods? As we enter our meetings to discuss and deliberate, do we demonstrate by example, teaching and requiring that all analysis has a structured view of its context, a roadmap forward and a digestible view of cause-and-effect input parameters? Or is every meeting with our teams a free-for-all, a bantering of anecdotes and ideas, some good, some not, where the meeting exit marks nothing but the close of a venting session? Are we deliberating soberly, or are we running to the battle front without considering the casualties of hip-shooting?

Showing passion is valuable, don’t avoid it. But the board room is not for pre-game, sideline screams of the football captain. Your meetings can be passionate but controlled. And they must be corralled toward a vision with an outcome plan.

If a psychotic, murderous, diamond hording Nazi and his minions are chasing you, it’s time to run. But for most of us the “do what you say” and “say what you do” framework builds the credibility that is, no surprise, the medal winner. The business landscape is littered with the one-hit wonders, the hundred-meter sprinter, while the lasting brands are those firms who prepared for distance -- the marathon.

Whether in the corporate corridors or home office havens, calm and steady always wins the race.

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