Confidence in Leadership:
Mediocrity is not an Option
(A Two-Minute Primer for Success)

I was in Manhattan a few days after September 11th for a meeting with a CEO who has an office six blocks away from the World Trade Center. I walked the last two miles breathing the smoke and treading upon the soot in the street. The New York Stock Exchange had armoured personnel carriers from the US National Guard in front of it. No vehicle traffic was allowed in the area. Just people walking incredulously down the middle of roads. There must have been three or four New York policemen on every street corner.

As a combat veteran US Navy SEAL officer, I flashed my identification card to a National Guardsman barricading one of the access roads to the WTC and asked if I could get a closer look. He shouldn't have let me in near "Ground Zero" but he did. They were still in rescue mode as opposed to recovery mode, sifting gently through the wreckage. It was astounding to see how several enormous buildings could be reduced to such a paltry pile of rubble.

Two months after the event we still hope that military action will be as precise as possible, inflicting minimal collateral damage along the swift path to success. Perhaps some clever few will find a way to accomplish the goal without engaging in a protracted war of attrition. After all, it is not so far fetched that “attrition” could include our own families, our businesses - even the foundations we stand upon.

The ancient Chinese General, Sun Tzu, in his famous treatise "The Art of War" wrote:

"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. But his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. For inasmuch as they are gained over circumstances that have not come to light, the world at large knows nothing of them, and he therefore wins no reputation for wisdom; and inasmuch as the hostile state submits before there has been any bloodshed, he receives no credit for courage.”

So what might our leaders of nations and organisations learn from this old general? Certainly reticence in action would be succumbing to the barbaric deeds of a few. The abhorrent terrorist attacks and subsequent military action takes us beyond prevention of bloodshed. But perhaps the battles ahead of us can be fought in a different way. Consider what victories could be gained over circumstances that need not come to light.

Some would say the battles waged in the business world today are no less daunting, particularly to those accountable. Leaders of businesses are exhibiting the “strains of war.” The global economic downturn compounded by September 11th has many of our business leaders running scared. Maybe not overtly running, but mentally - their confidence is shaken. Their directives are misguided. Their heads are all too often found buried in the sand.

As business leaders we need to keep our heads up and step forward the best way we know how. We need to take inventory of our strengths and weaknesses as well as those of the people around us. We need to surround ourselves with people we trust and then proceed with confidence, grace and dignity. We need to take decisive action and move ahead knowing that many people depend on our next move.

Our businesses, our people and our families depend on our next move. The global economy no less. Reticence in action is not an option for those who demand success. One could sit back and wait for the business climate to improve… and thereby accompany the mediocre.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. Who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions. Who spends himself at a worth cause. Who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and if he fails, at least fails daring greatly - so that his place will never be with those cold timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”


Author: Dan Burke
Managing Director, Target Associates Ltd
9 November 2001

Office: +44 (0)189 277 1401
Mobile: +44 (0)789 996 0493