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There is no easy button

Leaders wish they had an "easy button" when mapping out strategy, but the ability to improvise when obstacles arise is where real leadership is found.

5 min read


easy button

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Picture the scene: You develop an idea for a technology company that will revolutionize an industry. You spend months crisscrossing the country raising millions of dollars and launch a startup in Silicon Valley. After months of arduous work, starts and stops and ups and downs, you realize that you’re going to run out of cash. And now you’re sitting in a board meeting where the company’s largest shareholder offers an out: a friendly foreclosure by which the company will live on but all of the original investors’ stakes will be diluted to almost nothing. Then he steps out of the room so you can put it up for a vote. 

steve mckee leadership

That happened to me. As co-founder of the startup, I was responsible for recruiting most of the investors. For developing the original business plan. For hiring the CEO. And ultimately, for the company’s failure. Voting “yes” to the foreclosure was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, not because we had any other options, but because of its implications. The fact that I was going to be one of the biggest losers was little consolation. I had no choice but to press on through the vote and its ramifications.

All of this came to mind as I watched an inspiring video currently making its way around the web of Duke Women’s Basketball Coach Kara Lawson addressing her athletes. Lawson tells her team that any meaningful pursuit in life goes to people that “handle hard well.” 

She says: “We all wait in life for things to get easier. It will never get easier. What happens is you handle hard better. The second we see you handling hard better, we’re going to make it harder. Because we’re preparing you for when you leave here. Not just basketball, life. So, make yourself a person that handles hard well. Because if you have a meaningful pursuit in life, it will never be easy.”

Ain’t that the truth. And the loftier the goal, the more difficult the journey. It is no fun to lose, but few things are worth pursuing without the potential of failure.

Planning is worthless … and everything

At dawn on June 6, 1942, when the Allies landed on Utah beach for what we now know as D-Day, they found the fight surprisingly easy. The reason? The wind and the waves had knocked them off course, so they landed much further east than they were supposed to and met less resistance than expected. But their mission was complicated by the fact that their next objective was now farther off through dangerous and uncertain territory. Which way should they go?

Over on Omaha beach, the landing crafts arrived in the right place. But there, the wind and the waves caused so much havoc that many soldiers died before they ever reached the shore, with many more mowed down due to the difficulty of maneuvering in poor conditions. They managed to gain a foothold, but under continual and withering fire. How could they hold on?

And on Pointe du Hoc, the Army Rangers whose mission it was to scale the 90-foot cliffs found that the desperate German troops above were cutting their ropes, so they had to find another way up under relentless assault. What were they to do? 

The leader of the D-Day operation, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” He must have known that despite months and months of preparation, once bullets started flying (and weather not cooperating), leadership on the ground was going to have to improvise. Having diligently prepared ahead of time, however, those to whom he had entrusted the task had the necessary skillsets and knowledge of the local geography to find a way to accomplish the mission regardless of the obstacles they faced.

Be ready to improvise

Leadership isn’t just about pointing a team in the right direction, it’s about determining what must be done when you face stiff opposition or get knocked off course. It’s not about the first step; it’s about every step that must be taken to reach your goal. And it’s almost always about finding ways to improvise when things go wrong or pick up the pieces when you fail. There is no easy button.

My investors and I lost our stakes in our startup, but it wasn’t life and death. On Utah Beach, 197 men died or went missing. On Omaha beach, the number was 2,400. And of the 225 Rangers who set out on the mission at Pointe du Hoc, fewer than 75 finished the day fit for duty. Much was lost in service of what had to be gained.

It’s inspiring to think about leading your troops, your team, or your startup to victory, but actually doing so is a whole other ballgame. Things rarely go according to plan. Sometimes you fail, and sometimes you win only by persevering through the severest of hardships. 

Thank God for those who handle hard well. May we all cultivate it in ourselves.


Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. McKee is the author of  “When Growth Stalls” and  “Power Branding.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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