This wise old proverb has been used for many years by various armed forces around the world as a measure of great leadership. When one of my business partners (a former IDF lieutenant) used this phrase in the context of business management last week, it got me thinking.
In the modern business world - young leaders-in-the-making yearn the company of seasoned, incumbent leaders who can nurture their growth. But other than some mentoring and knowledge transfer, the aspiring "A Players" really just want the incumbents to get out of their way and let them make decisions, make mistakes, and develop their own commercial instincts.
What many entrepreneurs fail to recognise is that leadership is not so much about the leader - but more so about the ones who are being led. The key to great leadership is not to teach others to become reliant on your guidance - but rather guide others towards self-sufficiency. A great leader who has nurtured his team should be able to withdraw his presence and return to find his well-oiled machine maintaining the same momentum as before he left. A great commander is judged by his absence. A great business leader creates a system, a culture and a structure capable of growing even without his day to day involvement.
Many successful online businesses run on such self-sufficient systems - albeit through technological means. eBay’s success can largely be put down to the fact that they created an autonomous system that works with little need for management interference. As an extreme example, eBay could probably be left idle for several weeks and still function as a highly profitable business. The foundations of this great business were built with an obsessive emphasis on the concept of “absent management”.
Removing yourself from the workplace in order to see the big picture is a vital part of ensuring everything is working correctly. A painter will spend days working away on detailed scenes on his artistic canvas. But to fully see the effectiveness of his efforts he must take a few steps back and judge the work in its entirety.
Like the painter, this constant waltz between micro and macro is the state of mind the modern entrepreneur must adopt in our fast changing world. The creation of new projects and ideas is an artistic process that cannot be undertaken while you remain submerged in the chaos of the trenches. Hands-on management helps you with the day-to-day running - but who is orchestrating the business’s next stage of evolution? Founders and business leaders, however, cannot simply be strategists - they need to have that unique ability to swiftly "deep dive" into the trenches when required but then elevate back up to the "aerial view" to strategically navigate the way forward. A great entrepreneur must have the vision and reflectiveness of an artist but the agility and versatility of a military commander. That's probably why they are such a rare breed.
There are some very sound economic reasons for the commander in a business to detach and delegate. In order for the business to have intrinsic capital value, you need to address "key man risk" related issues. A future buyer will most certainly apply a discount - or not buy at all - if too much of the business revolves around one or a concentrated group of individuals. Because succession planning doesn't deliver near term results or immediate self-gratification, most leaders tend to put it off. What they don't realise, however, is that in capital value terms, the business is failing so long as there isn't a tier of management fully trained and mentored to step up and take command. In military speak, succession planning is a systematic approach to building a leadership pipeline and talent pool to ensure leadership continuity. It is vital component of the value in your business.
When a painter finishes a work of art - it takes on a life of its own and becomes an entity that exists outside of him and is admirable in its own right. Call it odd to compare business to both war and art - but it is a subtle mixture of the two that makes for a world-class entrepreneurial venture. To be successful, one must create a machine (art) and make sure it’s superior to all others on the market (war). Like the work of art, your business, with a robust foundation, talent pool, and structure, can take on a life of its own and become a self-sufficient entity.
Dennis Waitley, the American best-selling author, once said 'failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end…' Failure is often misunderstood, a dirty word, only to be whispered in hushed tones. Some of those closest to me have yet to achieve their full potential because of their subconscious fear of the ‘F’ word. In certain cultures, failing is taboo and carries individual and familial shame, like a metaphorical scarlet letter burning on one’s forehead.
In high school, I was a sprinter. Metaphorically that is. I took on way too much. I wanted to make it big, and do it fast. My ambition and enthusiasm for education, sports and extracurricular activities exceeded my output levels, mainly because I was spread too thin. ‘The fruit of patience is very sweet,’ my father repeated reassuringly over breakfast as I gulped down my hot chocolate, but the Urdu proverb didn’t resonate at all with a young man eager to take on the world.
Winston Churchill once wisely said 'it's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.' He was addressing the nation in a BBC broadcast, speculating on how Russia may or may not respond in the wake of one of the most uncertain times in recent history - World War II. Leaders are often judged by how they manage uncertainty: when the stakes are high, yet our control of the possible outcomes is limited. At times like this, working out probabilities and other forms of statistical analysis are of little use. Great leaders that have triumphed over the beast of uncertainty are often those that have relied on calculated intuition and instinct.
Legend has it that way back in third century Rome, Emperor Claudius II wished for a radical transformation of his army. While his soldiers were loyal and dedicated, he believed that they could give more. He wanted the success of the military to be each soldier's only meaningful purpose in life. Such men were hard to find; although many were passionate and had risked their lives for the Empire, the soldiers had their loved ones and family life outside of the army. The Emperor saw this as a weakness and a distraction, so he took the bold and ruthless step - and forbade marriage altogether.