Steven's Blog

No One is Shooting at You

Years ago, I was having coffee with an entrepreneur who, at the time, was bootstrapping a software business. He had been a CIA operative during the Vietnam War, and told me about the time he had spent with a multinational special forces unit in Laos.

“In my life, I have had no experience more stressful than being chased through a jungle by someone shooting at me,” he reflected. “The risks and stresses of business do not faze me.”

I have never been in combat, but I can only imagine that if duress under fire gives you anything, it is perspective.

Most of us in business have never had to face such life-or-death situations. Yet, often I encounter managers in positions of leadership who approach each day as if being chased through a jungle by someone shooting at them were a real prospect.

The Japanese word for serious is a metaphor. Shinken (真剣) literally means “real sword,” as opposed to bamboo and wooden swords used when sparring or training in Kendo, the Japanese martial art of the sword. Wooden swords are forgiving of mistakes. Real swords when used carry with them permanent consequences.

FujiFilm CEO Shigetaka Komori observed that the top manager engages in battle with “real swords,” whereas mid-level managers and executives fight with wooden ones that allow for learning from mistakes. Like a real sword, decisions made by top managers that don’t work out potentially carry permanent consequences, and can badly wound or even destroy a business. In his view, losing such a sword fight as CEO is a career-ending proposition, whereas for mid-level managers it is their superiors who suffer the consequences of their losses. For the CEO, mistakes are unacceptable, and that is what produces the desperate need to win, Komori reasons.

And Komori should know. He led FujiFilm through a period in which the emergence of digital photography reduced the world film market, in which FujiFilm held the dominant share when he took over in 2000, to a mere scent of what it had been. Film had provided the company with the bulk of its annual earnings. Komori saved the business by investing in proprietary technology that had corollary applications in industries that have nothing to do with image production. A lot of these initiatives failed but enough succeeded to save the company, and make it thrive. None of their most lucrative successes have anything to do with FujiFilm’s digital camera business.

It is a misnomer that Kodak, FujiFilm’s only significant rival in the film business, failed merely because the company’s leaders refused to accept the possibility of digital photography. Even though Kodak pursued a similar strategy of diversification during that period, the decisions made did not pan out, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Yes, war at this level is waged with real swords.

I have rarely, if ever, witnessed a mid-level manager fired for having taken on a reasonable business risk that did not work out. Click To Tweet

Yet I have often witnessed mid-level managers behave as if any potential endeavor involves dueling with real swords.

For example, I was recently talking with a director of strategy who despite knowing current strategy development and management processes have issues that make them ineffective, and has known this for a while, as well as how best to fix the problems, he avoids advising the CEO and colleagues in management positions about improving practices that he knows could help them—this too despite this responsibility being part of his role. He fears possible a negative fallout from confrontation. It is not that there is no risk of a negative reaction either from the CEO or other managers. It is, however, his skewed view of the possible permanent consequences of a failed attempt, as if it were combat with real swords, when it is really wooden ones that are being used. If this manager cowers before such modest initiatives, how do you think he will treat the ones that require true boldness and audacity of action?

He is not alone in his thinking. I have encountered many mid-level managers who view any failure as permanent, when that is in fact rarely the case. For many, this becomes a justification for inaction. Habitual tentativeness retards learning. In companies where promotion is based on seniority, whether tacitly or as a matter of policy, and where a record with no failures is considered a virtue, the ranks of middle managers swell with those suffering from compounded annual retardation.

There is absolutely nothing dysfunctional with viewing failure as unacceptable, but there can be dysfunction in the response. The unacceptability of failure drives Komori to win. Others who are less adept are driven merely not to lose. The two are not the same.

Which sword do your lieutenants think they’re fighting with?

Wield your own wisely, and in any case, no one is shooting at anyone.

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