I’m reading a book entitled ‘Willpower’ at the moment by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. I heartily recommend it!
One of the stories told in this book is when a psychologist, who had been invited to give a talk about managing time, met an elite group of generals at the Pentagon. To get them going, the psychologist asked them to write a summary of their approach to managing their affairs. To keep it short, they were instructed to use no more than 25 words.
Several minutes later, all bar one of the generals was completely stumped: given the vast complexity and range of their responsibilities, how was it possible to boil this down to 25 words or less?
It was the only female general in the room, a person with a distinguished military career, who had worked her way through the ranks and been wounded in Iraq, who alone managed to complete the task. Here’s what she said:
First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three and so on. Then I cross out everything from three on down.
It’s true: we have a finite capacity for attention which when coupled with an equally finite amount of time and energy at our disposal means that we must prioritise. In the present moment how many things can any of us actually focus on anyway? Study after study demonstrates that multitasking is no more than a fantasy: a story we like to tell about how busy we are and our capacity to handle so many competing priorities. In fact we can task switch, but doing this too frequently can contribute to something called ‘ego depletion’: when we stop making judgments and substitute reactions instead.
Staying with the military theme, Napoleon did not win his many battles by making a better plan than his foe. No army has ever been managed into battle either. It is only the events leading up to the battle that can be planned – or as another General (Helmuth von Moltke) put it:
No plan survives contact with the enemy
Napoleon had a goal of course (whether you agree with it or not) but when it came to the battle itself his plan was to:
Engage, and then … wait and see.
In similar vein, Admiral Nelson at the instant before the Battle of Trafalgar ran a message up his flag ship for all to see. His order was the simple instruction:
Engage the enemy!
What do these two examples have in common?
It is that both Napoleon and Nelson understood that a battle is both complex and unpredictable. That to prevail will require the courage to trust the front line.
Each will have worked together with their chosen commanders perhaps over many weeks leading up to the moment when battle commences. During this period they will have built a clear understanding of what the overall objective is and will have considered the various ways in which the enemy might respond.
However, at the moment of truth, each knew they must place their trust in the commanders on the ground or on-board, to do the right thing under pressure, remaining true to the end objective while responding as circumstances dictate. In both cases a combination of much rehearsed tactics blends with a deep level of trust that the right responses will be made in any given moment.
Courage and Trust.
That is what defined them both. An ability to allow fluid responses to emerge under pressure which turns into a decisive advantage even when over-matched by an opposing force.
Back to our female general.
I think I’m going to follow her lead – here’s my list of priorities.
- Deliver our strategy
- Trust our people
- There is no three.