This article is adapted from Steve McKee’s new book, TURNS: Where Business Is Won and Lost.
Determining the direction of an organization is something leaders deal with every day. It’s our job description in a nutshell. Making turns is not only endemic to our jobs, it’s part of being human — likely more than any of us have ever realized.
Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing where to host a team retreat or who to invite to a sensitive meeting. At other times it’s as complicated as evaluating a new pricing strategy or designing a remote work policy. It may be wondering whether we should hire someone, fire someone or change the direction of our company. It might be pondering staffing up or slimming down, investing in a new initiative or divesting an old one or any of a thousand other decisions large and small that come our way in the course of our jobs as leaders.
A day full of turns
If you stop to consider how many turns we make over the course of a twenty-four-hour day, you’ll realize they’re innumerable. Consider the first five minutes of an average morning. We turn to get out of bed as we turn off the alarm, turning our necks to work out the kinks. We turn the corner to get to the bathroom and turn away from the mirror until we can look more presentable. We turn toward the kitchen where we turn on the coffeemaker, turning our heads in anticipation when we hear it beep. We turn the lid to open the creamer and grab a spoon to turn in the mug. When we think it’s just right, we gingerly turn the mug on our lips to enjoy that perfect first sip. Then we turn on our TVs or smartphones or laptops to get a jump on the day, or perhaps to avoid the challenging fork in the road we’re currently facing. You get the idea.
Some of these turns are physical, some are psychological and some metaphorical, but it’s remarkable that so many happen even before breakfast. And that’s to say nothing of the turning points in business that even the simplest choices we make (or avoid) can cause.
Seeing the possibility in turns
Turns represent moments of redirection. Of opportunity. Of transformation. Some turns we choose, and others are foisted upon us. The turns we make are affected not only by the turns of those around us, but by the turns of others around the world. And there are as many ways to think about turns as there are types of them: past and present, helpful and unhelpful, inadvertent and intentional. Turns can be viewed through a microscope or a telescope and reveal different lessons.
The philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To that I might add that they’re also condemned to missing its most valuable lessons. We are all subject to the bias of the present, as if the way things are today are the way things have always been. Not so, and the turns of the past have much to teach us.
Avoiding wrong turns
As do the turns of physics. A client of mine is also an airline pilot, and he says there are many parallels between flying a plane and piloting a company. For example, inadvertent stalls are a leading cause of fatal aviation accidents. A single-engine airplane can enter a stall for any number of reasons, but when it does the pilot must resist his instincts to pull up; that will further slow the plane’s airspeed and cause him to lose all control.
Instead, the airplane should be directed downward, using gravity to increase its velocity and regain lift. Once flying speed has been achieved, the pilot can stop the descent and return to a normal, level flight. Pulling up the nose of a stalled aircraft is a natural reaction, which is why pilots-to-be must learn the real-world implications of such a move. One wrong turn and it’s lights out.
Most of the turns we make in business won’t be life-and-death decisions, but we would do well to consider them carefully anyway. Nothing can move in a single direction forever, so turns, by nature, are about limits. But they’re also about overcoming limits. Finding new roads. Setting new courses. In every human turn there is decision and there is destiny.
The more we learn about turns, the more we learn about ourselves. And the more effective leaders we will become.
Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork, a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. McKee is the author of “TURNS: Where Business Is Won and Lost,” “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.“
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