“I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.” — Abraham Lincoln
“ … when you have completed your best preparations, you go into battle without hesitation, as at Chattanooga — no doubts, no reserve — and I tell you it was this that made us act with confidence. I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come, if alive.” — William Tecumseh Sherman in a letter to U.S. Grant
Now, I know this is a vast oversimplification, but I am going to use these two quotes to describe two types of leadership. On the one end of the spectrum, let’s put Lincoln, who we can describe as espousing “flexible” leadership — that which is open to change and lets everyone involved know such is the case. On the other end of the spectrum, we can put Grant and his “steadfast” style of sticking with the plan, no matter what; of seeing the thing through and seeing how it winds up. And, of course, letting everyone involved know that such is the case. In each case, different people in the know will be comforted or disconcerted based on their feelings about which approach is best.
As leaders we are constantly torn between these two worlds, with today’s messaging — especially healthcare (and publishing for that matter) — to be on the change, change, change side. If you’re not disrupting, you’re dying; if you’re doing things the same way today as you did yesterday, you won’t be here tomorrow. Change or die, change for the sake of change is good. I don’t care if what you did yesterday worked, change it now!
By the way, if I hear one more conference speaker quote Clayton Christensen, I think I’ll freak out.
But then there is the other side of the spectrum; there is the Grant or Joe Torre side. Whenever I think of steadfastness, I picture Joe Torre sitting in the Yankee dugout, inning after inning, game after game, seasons after season, and championship after championship, with that same stoic look on his face no matter what happened. It was this consistent approach and temperament which had the same effect on his players that Grant’s approach had on his soldiers — they knew their leader was going to keep a steady hand on the wheel, not jerk the ship this way or that out of panic. What had gotten them there would get them through, as long as they didn’t change.
Of course, Joe Torre was essentially forced out, and one could argue that the steadfastness which won him championships is the same quality that eventually saw them stop winning. Certainly the same sports pundits who lauded his temperament when the Yankees were winning blamed it (not fiery enough!) when the good times stopped rolling.
So there we have the classic leadership dilemma as I see it. Not Clayton’s issue of how to create tomorrow’s new and disruptive products while keeping today’s cash-producing trains running on time; but when and in what way change is necessary at all. When should you have confidence that what got you here will keep you going, versus when what got you here has run its course? When is the new trend a false start that you should eschew, versus the car making the horse and buggy obsolete?
Here’s the fact — I don’t know which is the right answer (of course it depends on the situation), but I do feel this is the most important question any leader can grapple with, and getting it right means nothing less than survival. This is what keeps me up and night — Kodak having the digital camera back in the Stone Age and tossing it out of the cave with the wood shavings. (This is the second conference speaker staple after a Christensen quote.)
How do we (both you and I) not become Kodak? How can we know when to change and when to stay the course? Taking one approach to the exclusion of the other is a sure way to die, and flipping back and forth at the wrong times won’t work either. I suppose this is why those in leadership positions make the big bucks; for making these big calls, for tacking slightly west based on the wind out of the south, or however you want to describe making slight course corrections when others see nothing amiss on the horizon. Or by going straight into the storm without deviating one degree because that is what makes the most sense at the time, based on all the data at hand.
Looking up at the above quotes, I think I’ll take Lincoln’s as my mantra — keep an eye on the weather and make course adjustments when necessary, with a significant threshold required for major change. Above all, keep your eyes on the horizon, and don’t spend too much time below deck, because down there, you can’t even see the closest shoals before it’s too late.