“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
—Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn co-founder
It took us almost four weeks to cross the Tasman Sea through the “roaring forties” – the strong winds found between the latitudes of 40 and 50 degrees- on our 111 foot schooner to New Zealand. We had rationed water, food and fuel as we battled headwinds ever since leaving Australia; winds were coming directly at us and forcing us to chart a zigzag course to our destination.
There were moments of angst, of confusion, of boredom and of impatience but what transpired over those four weeks until we made it safely into a little harbor on New Zealand’s North Island was a renewed sense of humility and of community that meant putting others – “the good of the ship” – before our own interests.
Decades ago, Peter Drucker wrote:
“No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”
And that’s precisely what our sailing expedition taught us: that ordinary people led by ordinary people in a mission that inspires action, collaboration and problem solving is the key to success when faced with adversity.
Organizations face adversity every single day. Managers and leaders have to perform small miracles in order to overcome challenges, solve problems or deliver the results they think their shareholders want. When managers are good at this, they are compensated accordingly and the circle may be perpetuated as more “wins” bring greater prestige, honor and reward. It’s positive reinforcement at its best.
Is there a place for humility in leadership today? And can humility and prestige co-exist within a leader?
Humility is only a weakness in a system that values things like status over substance, personality over character, or performance over depth. Today, we have the option of moving away from the “either” “or” scenario to embrace humility – serving others – as well as prestige and reward. Jonathan Sacks wrote:
What a glorious revelation humility is of the human spirit … True humility is one of the most life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing or underestimating yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals an openness to life’s grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it … False humility is the pretense that one is small. True humility is the consciousness of standing in the presence of greatness.
When we were four weeks at sea – we were standing in the presence of the power and greatness of the ocean. But there’s no need to enter into survival mode to experience greatness. Greatness can be achieved through humility by simply avoiding putting yourself before others and leading ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
Photo source: dreshetnikov, via thenowbook on Tumblr
As you grow older you will discover you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.
– Audrey Hepburn
The most important concepts in business are timeless. That’s why Peter Drucker’s articles and books are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them twenty to forty years ago. Questions pondering the goal of business, how leaders paint a vision, or why small changes make a company innovative are timeless. Industries may change but the timeless concepts do not.
When we confuse timeliness with timelessness we have a problem. Timeliness is “occurring at a suitable or opportune time” while timelessness is “unaffected by time”. Both can occur simultaneously but one should not substitute the other. Both are important but we need to know when to be timely and when to be timeless.
Concepts are timeless; actions are timely. Ideas are timeless; plans are timely.
If we confuse timelessness with timeliness we could be in the danger of going nowhere – endlessly asking why or trying to perfect the product and never “shipping it” as Seth Godin would say.
If we makes decisions based purely on timeliness we might regret those decisions in the long run when our haste to get results or take action should have been tempered with some strategic thinking, or understanding our customer better, or going the extra mile for our stakeholders or jumping to another innovation curve.
We need to distinguish between what is timeless and what is timely. Two great quotes to end today’s post:
“Time doesn’t seem to pass here: it just is.”
JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Make use of time, let not advantage slip.
Your customers are people, your employees are people, your suppliers and your stakeholders are people…people do business with people; not with systems, processes or contracts.
No matter how elaborate a marketing scheme or how robust an analysis of a country or niche market, success really comes down to how people feel about your product and your company and your “people” (employees, brand ambassadors, agents, suppliers etc). Are they willing to buy it even if it’s more expensive or harder to find because of the way it makes them feel?
If there is no context or “feeling” to your business relationship then business becomes highly transactional and potentially replaceable; even for the large players with endless resources.
Most countries in Latin America are considered high context; where the feelings around a sale, where you rank in hierarchy, the strength of the relationship, are often as important as the substance – what it is you are selling.
When you are a monopoly, substance can rule. Systems, processes and contracts win out. When you are trying to make yourself part of the lives of Latin Americans, why not start with getting the people part right?
Focus on people – and on what you mean to people – and business will follow.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover. –Mark Twain
Photo courtesy Rachel Clark. I (Esther Clark) am seated on the right beside the man with the camera. Offshore voyage aboard the Pacific Swift from Victoria, BC to Brisbane, Australia and back.