The Virtue of Injury

I cut my teeth learning to run on the Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado. Though beautiful, it is grueling running terrain–high elevations with steep ascents. In the Rockies, I got good at running–I learned to run slow.

I had planned a trip to New York in August. I love New York, and was looking forward to running in Central Park. Donning a Yankees T-shirt, I set out at my typical Rocky Mountain pace. It would have been easy to spot me. I was the guy everyone was passing.

Perhaps it was ego, or maybe it was hubris. It was definitely a suspense of better judgment, but I decided to pick up the pace. Running on the flats at sea-level after running in Colorado made me feel like Superman. It felt glorious–right up to the point where I pulled a calf muscle.

That injury kept me from running for a few weeks. Not to be deterred, I refocused attention on other sports that I had neglected while developing a passion for running. Those helped me improve endurance and coordination. By the time I returned to running, I was much better at it and more fit.

But how would I have fared if I had not suffered the injury? Sometimes it is the poor decisions leading to damage that spur our most dramatic growth.

Growth in business is often the same. The CEO of a Japanese client company of mine wanted to expand into Southeast Asia, enthusiastic to tap into growth of that region. The company had cut its teeth on the domestic Japan market, grueling economic terrain during the last two decades to say the least. He felt ready to take on the world.

Perhaps it was hubris or maybe it was ego. Ignoring all sorts of advice and indicators, the CEO ordered the establishment of a factory in Southeast Asia. It was a rash decision any way you look at it. The factory was immediately bleeding cash, with no end in sight. Having made a ten-year commitment on supply of raw materials, shutting down would be more costly than running at a loss.

Like Monday-morning quarterbacks, people inside the company and outside it told me all the things the CEO had done wrong. They all said the factory should never have been built. They were absolutely right. Indeed, I agreed with them–at least I agreed with their rationale.

However, I believe that the company is better for having suffered this “injury” than it would have been should injury have been avoided. Managers who had originally pooh-poohed the company’s push to learn English, were now practicing English and improving their global business skills. Line staff followed suit. Having been forced to be resourceful to keep the Southeast Asia factory churning away, salespeople found new markets and opportunities that had not been apparent before.

There is a new vitality in the company, and the business results are beginning to show. There is now even talk of opening another factory in the region–one that would be better positioned I presume.

Yet had the CEO made the “right” decision and not established the Southeast Asia factory, I suspect the company’s growth would have been far more modest, maybe even flat–or worse.

In today’s business world, we have raised a class of managers trained to work toward the optimal, the rational, the controlled and the predictable. We second guess ourselves, fret over past failures, and avoid taking action for fear of imagined damage yet unrealized. We prefer smooth lines of growth on a graph without the jerkiness of real life. Smart managers are supposed to be good at that kind of thing. But what about smart leaders?

Call it hubris, or call it ego. Call it suspense of better judgement if you like. Sometimes, there are things that we just want to do. We make our decisions, sometimes brashly, and then deal with the consequences whatever they may be.

If you have a business decision to make, just make it. Don’t fret about doing what is optimal. Worry less about missteps, failure or even damage. For it is often damage that leads to dramatic growth in unpredictable ways.