This is the third in a series of posts based on Great by Choice. Although the book is aimed primarily at the business community, I consider it extraordinarily helpful for leadership in any realm. I am finding that the 20 Mile March concept is also useful for maintaining a sense of balance in my personal life. It is a reminder to not become either complacent or overly aggressive in pursuing life objectives.
As noted in the two previous posts, the authors, Jim Collins and Morton T Hansen, compared a number of highly successful companies with less successful companies in the same industry. Their purpose was to discover what distinguished the top performers from the others. They refer to the successful companies as 10Xers because they out performed their industry by at least ten times.
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The authors again help us understand the importance of their findings by comparing the strategies of two South Pole explorers, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Just as he had been meticulous in planning and preparing for his expedition, Amundsen held rigorously to his strategy and schedule once he was on the trail. He had determined beforehand that he would be wise to travel 20 miles each day, in good conditions and in adverse conditions. Undoubtedly he and his men were tempted to hunker down in their tents on cold days when the frigid wind blew in their faces. And almost certainly, they were equally tempted to keep going longer when the weather favoured them. By exercising discipline, Amundsen was able to conserve the strength of his men and the dogs.
Scott, however, did not embrace the 20 Mile March concept. He pushed himself and his men hard on the good days, then took days off when the weather harassed them. By pushing too hard, he exhausted himself and his men. Then, waiting in his tents for favourable weather, he fell behind and eventually lost the race to the South Pole. On the return journey, he ran out of food. He and his men died of starvation only 10 miles from their next food cache.
Collins and Hansen point out the similarities in strategy between Amundsen and Stryker’s CEO John Brown. When Brown assumed the helm at Stryker, now a leading medical technology company, he set a benchmark to drive consistent performance. He engrained the 20 Mile March concept (“the walk” as he termed it) into the culture of the company. If a division fell behind, he would insert himself into it, working almost non-stop, to “help” the division get back on track. The authors suggest that “you get the impression you don’t want to need John Brown’s help. He does not tolerate excuses.”
In spite of pressure from Wall Street to grow the company rapidly, Stryker had a self-imposed constraint never to go too far, never to grow too fast in a single year. John Brown understood that if you want to achieve consistent performance, you need both parts of the 20 Mile March. A hurdle you have to jump over and a ceiling you will not rise above.
The company Collins and Hansen used as a comparison to Stryker, did not employ the 20 Mile March concept. Its CEO was an aggressive risk taker and for a time it grew with amazing speed, much more rapidly than Stryker. When adverse circumstances confronted both companies, however, Stryker continued to prosper but the comparison company, like Robert Scott did not survive.
Whether in business, community leadership, or in our personal lives, the 20 Mile March concept can enable us to achieve more consistent success.