Business After bin Laden

Hoar Ask any decorated leader — military or business — what keeps them focused and energized. They will echo what retired U.S. General Joseph Hoar shared with me a decade ago: a daily commitment to quietly reflect and re-evaluate our course. As world citizens discuss and debate the proper way to respond to the successful capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, we face the same opportunity.

I sat next to Joe on a flight home to San Diego, California, a few months before the September 11, 2001, attacks forever changed and heightened my global views. What struck me about Joe was his calm reserve and thoughtful presence. We enjoyed discussing world politics, his career as former Commander in Chief of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), and the good life in Southern California.

I asked Joe one question that elicited a response which will stay with me forever. When I asked him the secret to his decades of successful military service, he said, “I dedicate time every day to quietly reflect.” This week, Joe’s simple yet profound statement became even more relevant as responses to bin Laden’s death exploded across every media channel.

Over the past 27 years, I have witnessed many forms of military exercises in the business world. They certainly do not compare in magnitude to the events witnessed this week. But the principles and lessons in the battle for market share still apply. In the business world, these “exercises” come in two flavors:

  1. Defeat your competition at all costs (meaning, sell products at a loss, plant traps for your competitors, spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about their viability, etc.)
  2. Spend as little time as possible focusing on the competition. Instead, create an entirely new playing field. This may appear by launching a game-changing product or service, developing an untapped market, or becoming obsessively effective at customer intimacy to the point where they would never dream of switching to your competitor.

It took me several days to reflect on this momentous week. My emotions vacillated from the levity of the Royal Wedding to the gravitas of the Abbottabad compound attack. After much turmoil and contemplative thought, I realized the opportunity ahead. Not just for me, but for all business owners and leaders.

This attack represents, to some degree, closure. We have defeated a major competitor. The costs are far too great to enumerate, even though some self-anointed economists and experts will try convincing you otherwise.

We have not obliterated the Taliban, but we have at least weakened their cause considerably. We are at a crossroads: As a nation, we can continue to fan the anti-terrorist flames, mindlessly expand our military complex, and feed the Homeland Security three-headed dragon. Or we can channel our immense talent, resources, and passion towards education, innovation, and creating private sector jobs — the essence of what makes American business shine.

Think back at your most recent competitive or companywide victory. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What motivated us to succeed and win? Was it fear, pride, greed, or some other fleeting vice?
  2. What makes our company strong? How much have we strayed from those core values and strengths to get ahead or satisfy short term investor demands?
  3. How can we return to our core strengths and values again?
  4. How do our products and solutions make the world a better place? Where are we making the greatest difference?
  5. Where can we re-allocate resources from firefighting and competitive battling to innovation and customer focused endeavors?
  6. What can we commit to stop doing so that we can make white space on our calendars for these renewed efforts?

Joe Hoar contributed the earlier half of his life to fighting the bad guys in faraway places such as Yemen, Somalia, and the Persian Gulf. Since his retirement in 1994, this spry 77 year old spends his time advising global companies and staying physically active. Joe reminds me that it is never too late to re-invent yourself and leverage your natural gifts.

For the first time in ten years, I am hopeful that the era of mass fear and terrorist-driven paranoia is over. Let’s use this historical moment to re-direct our actions and resources towards purpose-driven growth planning, global understanding, and innovation.

[This post originally appeared on FastCompany.com]

[Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org]

Copyright 2011, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.

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