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February 5, 2018 | by Ashley DeVecht

The Horizon Beyond the Trees

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing.” — Peter Drucker

This month’s blog is dedicated to a very special friend with whom my MSCI team, and I worked on various communication projects. He was stricken with a rare form of leukemia, and sadly passed away within a month of being diagnosed. All of us at MSCI dedicate this month’s “As I See It…” to him.

As you know, I’m a huge admirer of Winston Churchill. I believe that he and Abraham Lincoln both best represent the true definition, the essence, of what constitutes leadership. Over the holidays, I went to see Darkest Hour, the movie depicting Churchill’s election as Prime Minister, and arguably one of Britain’s bleakest moments as the initial stages of World War II were unfolding. I was struck by Churchill’s resolve and conviction to chart a course for his country that at the time was not in political favor with his fellow members of Parliament. In fact, his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, quietly tried to derail it from his backbench position. Churchill’s adversaries wanted their Prime Minister to “manage” the political landscape. Fortunately for the British, and the free world, Churchill chose a different path; leadership was his course of action through these iniquitous times.

Trying to “manage” events in the early 1940’s as they unfolded, as Chamberlain and other politicians wanted him to do, would have been disastrous. Managers, like Chamberlain, and later defined by Drucker, “do things the right way.” Good intentions perhaps, but not always a passageway to success. They often follow what they believe to be the path of least resistance. Leaders do what’s right.

Managers, like Chamberlain, and later defined by Drucker, “do things the right way.” Good intentions perhaps, but not always a passageway to success.

Churchill could clearly see a different horizon than his peers. He didn’t succumb to the herd mentality, nor pressure to follow the crowd and conventional wisdom. Capitulating to those who felt an attempted negotiated agreement with Hitler was the corridor to freedom would have resulted in a very different world than we know today. A master of the English language, and person of classic British humor, Churchill declared to his critics, “You can’t reason with a tiger when your head is in his mouth!” Leadership is what gave him that perspective and the tenacity to utter those words to his critics.

Our world today is in desperate need for leadership — business and political. I’ll touch base upon the former and leave the latter for another time. We in business are constantly confronted with situations requiring us to know when to lead and when to manage. Margins are getting squeezed, competition is intensifying, traditional models are being disrupted and stakeholders are demanding more for less. 

I challenge myself daily to remain focused on leadership for therein lies the valley beyond the forest of success (intrinsic and extrinsic rewards). Leading a for-profit business, or a trade association today, is a 24/7 test of our resolve to see the forest despite the trees. The temptations to “sweat the small stuff” are habitual, and come from all directions. We as business leaders, however, must seek success not through a narrow lens, but rather a global visionary perspective. Our world is changing at a pace never seen before in history. Consolidations, technological breakthroughs, disruptions, changing demographics, IoT, and much more are dramatically reshaping and redefining the tree line. Our forests are no longer what we knew them to be. The young saplings of birch, maple, and hemlocks that we once climbed have now been overtaken with gigantic and mature redwoods, various oaks, and hickory. Managers struggle to see the forest because of this growth of new trees. The disruption within the forest we knew sometimes paralyses decision making and prevents risk taking. Leaders identify the valleys beyond, they see business opportunities based upon what they can imagine not constrained by the world they know. Success rests upon the proper balance between managers’ focus on costs and leaders’ passion for profitable revenue growth. Some business models may be tweaked, many others, however are going to require visionary leadership much like Churchill’s.   

The late Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, former president of The University of Notre Dame, and Churchillian in his own way, said it another way, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” The trumpet is arguably the strongest, most agile and versatile in the orchestra. Bad notes are easily heard, and fanfare is a thing of beauty. Hopefully, leaders sound like Handel’s Water Music and their clarion call is certain and true.