Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Leadership and Muddling Through: Why Leadership Always Counts

It is always comforting to think that we shall, somehow, muddle through, as if we are a bunch of children and before we actually set the house on fire, mom or dad will come in and set things right. It is a pleasant thought. It is also dangerous. With the exception of the occasional cases of Divine Intervention, which remain difficult to document, mankind has never ‘muddled through.’ Either someone comes along with a plan to ‘get us out of this mess’ that works, or the situation deteriorates and there is catastrophe.
People, individuals, determined to survive, dragged their nation or their people through the crisis. It has been a close run thing from time to time. And sometimes they fail and civilizations crumble. Those who stood and watched King Priam refuse to deal with the Greeks, and then fled as Troy burned, didn’t feel like they were ‘muddling through.’ Shortly before the Vandals sacked Rome there were those who stood and said it would be fine; for many it wasn’t. When the Mongols swept into China, then Persia and then India, those civilizations, and the many city states, didn’t muddle through – many of them ceased to exist.
When the Founding Fathers declared Independence it was not a forgone conclusion that the United States would succeed. It was not a case of simply muddling through. When slavery tore this country apart we didn’t muddle through. When this nation entered World War I and World War II it did not muddle through. Though it is somehow consoling to think that ‘it will work out,’ the fact is that, in many cases in history it has not worked out, not for those involved.
The fact is that the one item in common with the examples above, and thousands of others, is that it has been the decisions of individuals who have driven the events. The Greeks didn’t simply ‘show up’ in front of Troy, they were led by just a few men, who convinced the leaders of dozens of city-states to fight Troy. Nor did Troy simply and passively suffer the consequences. Negotiations and offers were refused. In the end, Priam of Troy proved to be a leader who destroyed his people.
When the Mongols swept off the steppes it wasn’t a natural event, determined by social and demographic pressures, it was the result of an electrifying figure who was able to unite and lead one of the most disparate groups in history. And despite being often outnumbered and for many years poorer than those they fought, Genghis Khan’s leadership was able to trump any and all of those that he faced.
The same is true in any field: it can be argued that someone was going to develop the light bulb. That is certainly true if the someone is Thomas Edison. The Wright Brothers made the first heavier than air powered flight. Certainly their success benefited from the work of others, but that list of others is remarkable short. Lilienthal, Maxim, and perhaps two dozen others, over a course of several centuries, had made serious effort to solve the problem of powered flight. It was the work of these individuals, not some tide of history, that resulted in flight.
Would the world have survived without Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Ray Kroc? Most likely. But it would be a different world, perhaps substantially different, and not necessarily better. In whatever place we find ourselves, we can choose to ‘go with the flow,’ assuming that the world around us will somehow muddle through, but we are really going with someone else’s flow. As I said, Genghis Khan’s army didn’t just show up, it was led. The cities that failed to organize and resist his army, and were thereby consumed, failed not because of some ‘tide of history,’ theirs was a failure of leadership. Their inability to produce a leader who could unite enough cities to resist the Khan’s army resulted in the death of their cities and their cultures. They didn’t ‘muddle through.’
It is convenient, and comforting, to assume away both the worst the world can throw at us and to rationalize our own inaction. But, it isn’t correct. We survive and thrive, or we fail and starve, on our own initiatives. Mankind will not be here in 100 years if we ‘let it muddle through.’ Certainly, western civilization will not be here if we simply hope it will muddle through. Hope is not a plan. Individuals have to decide to act, stand up and lead, whether as national figures or in their own little corner of the world. Leadership is always a precious commodity, particularly on the side of right.
It has been pointed out before that of the twelve corporations that made up the original Dow Jones Industrials in 1896, only one remains. In fact, every industry is littered with the ‘corpses’ of once great companies. The aviation industry is a great example: Republic Aircraft? Vought? McDonnell-Douglas? All once great, all now gone. They didn’t collapse nor were they bought up because of some cosmic force of history. They failed because their leadership failed to act in time, they failed to adapt, they made poor decisions. They failed because their leadership failed.
Every day, every organization – every company, every corporation, every city, every state, every nation, every civilization – has a choice: do we move forward, do we defeat the problems in our path, do we conquer our foes, or do we sit here and hope to muddle through? That choice is made by the individuals in the lead and by the people they motivate to move forward with them. Or not. If they move forward they may still fail. But if they choose to not move forward they are already dieing.


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