Last week I read Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. I felt the book was filled with too many long-winded stories and could have been reduced in size by at least half, but I liked the overall message, which is that execution is a key part of strategy. Let me ‘splain…. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
I’ll cover how this principle can be applied both for a business and for an individual.
First, let’s say you run a business. You set some goals for the next year, and then you map out a plan to achieve those goals. Everything looks good on paper. But then your company tries to execute the strategy over the course of the year, and it flops. But it flops not because the strategy itself was flawed but because the execution of the strategy was bungled. It’s like a football coach calling for a particular play (a play that is the correct call for the given situation), and the players on the field execute that play ineptly — they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. So even though the coach called the right play, the team couldn’t execute it well enough to get the expected result.
H.L. Hunt, a man who rose from a bankrupt cotton farmer in the 1930s to a multi-billionaire when he died in 1974, was once asked during a TV interview what advice he could give to others who wanted to be financially successful. He said only two things are required. First, you must decide exactly what it is you want to accomplish. Most people never do that in their entire lives. And secondly, you must determine what price you’ll have to pay to get it, and then resolve to pay that price.
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits
in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
- Helen Keller
In our day-to-day lives, the virtue of courage doesn’t receive much attention. Courage is a quality reserved for soldiers, firefighters, and activists. Security is what matters most today. Perhaps you were taught to avoid being too bold or too brave. It’s too dangerous. Don’t take unnecessary risks. Don’t draw attention to yourself in public. Follow family traditions. Don’t talk to strangers. Keep an eye out for suspicious people. Stay safe.
But a side effect of overemphasizing the importance of personal security in your life is that it can cause you to live reactively. Instead of setting your own goals, making plans to achieve them, and going after them with gusto, you play it safe. Keep working at the stable job, even though it doesn’t fulfill you. Remain in the unsatisfying relationship, even though you feel dead inside compared to the passion you once had. Who are you to think that you can buck the system? Accept your lot in life, and make the best of it. Go with the flow, and don’t rock the boat. Your only hope is that the currents of life will pull you in a favorable direction.
No doubt there exist real dangers in life you must avoid. But there’s a huge gulf between recklessness and courage. I’m not referring to the heroic courage required to risk your life to save someone from a burning building. By courage I mean the ability to face down those imaginary fears and reclaim the far more powerful life that you’ve denied yourself. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of going broke. Fear of being alone. Fear of humiliation. Fear of public speaking. Fear of being ostracized by family and friends. Fear of physical discomfort. Fear of regret. Fear of success.
How many of these fears are holding you back? How would you live if you had no fear at all? You’d still have your intelligence and common sense to safely navigate around any real dangers, but without feeling the emotion of fear, would you be more willing to take risks, especially when the worst case wouldn’t actually hurt you at all? Would you speak up more often, talk to more strangers, ask for more sales, dive headlong into those ambitious projects you’ve been dreaming about? What if you even learned to enjoy the things you currently fear? What kind of difference would that make in your life?
Have you previously convinced yourself that you aren’t really afraid of anything… that there are always good and logical reasons why you don’t do certain things? It would be rude to introduce yourself to a stranger. You shouldn’t attempt public speaking because you don’t have anything to say. Asking for a raise would be improper because you’re supposed to wait until the next formal review. They’re just rationalizations though – think about how your life would change if you could confidently and courageously do these things with no fear at all.
What is your career? Forget about how you define this to others for now, and just think for a bit about how you define your career to yourself. What does it mean to you to have a career? Is it just your job? Is it something you do to make a living? Is it what you do for money? Is it your work?
Most people would define a career as more than a job. Above and beyond a job, a career is a long-term pattern of work, usually across multiple jobs. A career implies professional development to build skill over a period of time, where one moves from novice to expert within a particular field. And lastly, I would argue that a career must be consciously chosen; even if others exert influence over you, you must still ultimately choose to become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. If you didn’t make a conscious choice at some point, I would then say you have a job but not a career.
One of the difficulties I see a lot of people experiencing lately is that they spend the bulk of their days working at a job that isn’t part of a consciously chosen career. Once you graduate from school and enter the work force, you don’t suddenly gain the knowledge of what kind of career to build. Most likely you just focus on getting a job as your first step after school. And you probably have to make this choice in your early 20s. After a decade or two, you’ve established a pattern of work and built up some expertise. But at what point did you stop and say, what is my career going to be?
Courage is the Gateway
In the book Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior, Dr. David Hawkins describes a hierarchy of human emotional states beginning with shame and guilt on the low end and leading to peace and enlightenment on the high end.
Hawkins claims the lower emotional states weaken us, while the higher ones make us stronger. And the dividing line between strong and weak is the state of courage, which is the first positive state. Courage separates the lower energies of force, where we feel we are fighting life, from the higher energies of power, where we feel we are cooperating with life. As Hawkins writes:
[Courage] is the zone of exploration, accomplishment, fortitude, and determination. At the lower levels, the world is seen as hopeless, sad, frightening, or frustrating; but at the level of Courage, life is seen to be exciting, challenging, and stimulating. … Obstacles that defeat people whose consciousness is [lower] … act as stimulants to those who have evolved into the first level of true power. … This is where productivity begins.
Courage is the dividing line between weakness and strength of character. If you want to get past the situation where fear and anxiety run your life, you must eventually embrace the energy of courage. While it’s certainly not the highest evolutionary level available to you, it is the first positive rung as you work towards higher persistent states like reason, love, joy, and peace. At this level you see danger and risk, acknowledge it, and still take action in spite of it. This has the effect of shrinking the presence of fear in your life, such that you can grow into higher states where your needs are more easily met and fear simply becomes unnecessary. You realize that nothing out there is scary except to the degree you make it so in your mind, and you learn to stop creating fear within yourself. Courage is the gateway in the sense that you must first learn to face down your fears, even as they still appear real to you. As long as you avoid them, you continue to weaken yourself. But face them and they dissolve.