Nothing. Doing nothing.
Your Business Professor was advising a CEO after a train wreck caused by his team.
It was a case study on how to derail a project on each of the four parts of management. Usually crashing one part of management is enough. I marveled at the thoroughness of the wreckage.
“What happened?” I asked. You can count on complicated questions from consultants who have no clue.
“Time,” said the CEO, his head down. “I wish that I took 10 minutes — just 10 minutes to think about it and — if I just took some time to give the problem some real thought — then I could have provided some direction …”
The boss was taking all the blame. As he should.
It started with an incomplete arrangement (plan), using the wrong people (organize) who were distracted with other responsibilities (lead). There were no milestones, no deadlines and no managerial oversight (control).
He is not alone.
The U.S. armed services has codified this ultimate responsibility in the Army Command Policy manual. “Commanders are responsible for everything their command does or fails to do,” according to Army Regulation AR 600-20 (PDF) on page 6.
I looked around the CEO’s immense corner office. Walls of glass on two sides. “You know,” I said, “you spent a lot of money on these floor-to-ceiling windows.”
The CEO gives me a tired look. I get that a lot.
“Maybe,” I said, “You should work less and take more time looking out into infinity …”
General “Red” Newman, a hero in World War II, writes on leadership. He explains in a chapter entitled ” ‘Think Time’ is Vital in Command,” about being young and new in a position:
“Not being sure what else to do, I began reading books, manuals, files, orders and otherwise bending every effort to learn my new job.
“After about ten days, I was at my desk at five o’clock one evening when, as usual, I heard the slow measured tread of dignified footsteps in the hallway. I knew this was the fine old Chief of Staff on his daily promenade homeward.
“I looked up to see him pass my door, for I both liked and respected him, but this day the tempo of his footsteps changed and he turned toward my doorway. As I came hastily to my feet, he let his steely blue eyes rest on me a contemplative moment before he said:
“‘Newman. Every day when I pass this door I see you talking on the phone, pushing a pencil as though in a hurry, or reading with a worried frown on your face.’
“He tapped the side of his knee gently with the braided riding crop he always carried.
“‘In fact,” he said, “I’m beginning to worry about you a little—and to wonder if we have got the right man up here’.”
“The braided riding crop continued to tap.
“‘Now,’ he continued, ‘if some of the time when I come by here I find you smoking a cigarette and looking out the window, then I would be encouraged—and think maybe some general staff work was getting done’.”
The older general was advising the younger officer who would be a future general. Red Newman writes in “Follow Me III Lessons on the Art and Science of High Command,” about this learned lesson:
“Therefore, stop. Look out the window now and then, and let your mind stand away from problems to see them in perspective, to select those areas to which you will direct your efforts.
“… The most important duty of a general staff officer is not just to work skillfully, even selectively, at matters brought to him for resolution or coordination, but to reflect on matters he should be working on that nobody else has thought about yet.” (italics in original)
Instead of being hunched over his desk slaving away, perhaps my CEO would have been more effective if he had his feet on his desk staring out the window.