by Richard Harshaw
What a year 2020 has been! It seems like this year has been worse than a Disney roller coaster ride gone terribly wrong. We come out of 2019 with the strongest stock market American has ever seen and a roaring economy that was the envy of the world, and now we are reeling under repeated heavy blows from political upheaval, a new and deadly virus and social unrest. We are like an MMA fighter being pummeled by a heavyweight with enough punching power to rip open a heavy bag.
So where do we go from here? What is next?
No doubt you have seen some of the memes on social media lately—“Coming in July 2020, Snailien” or a knock-off from Ghostbusters of the Pillsbury Dough Boy approaching from over a hill with a devious smirk on his face. I saw one the other day of a freight train rolling through a huge ball of fire and the caption “Here comes the second half of 2020!”
I don’t know what is next. (If I did know, do you think I’d be sitting here writing a column for free?) But I have been thinking about how we as contractors come out of this nightmare and a few ideas have come across my fevered imagination, so please indulge me for a few minutes as I wax eloquent on the lessons of history.
First, we all suspect that there is a lot of dammed up demand (read that correctly!) out there and when the flood gates begin to open, we may see a flood of business for our industry. Which always scares me because when business is super good and super easy, the super creepy get into it and muck it up for those of us who try to do it right. But that’s another column…
As I look back on history, I see a few examples of leaders who kept their heads when they were suddenly faced with unexpected developments, developments that could have (and did) change the course of history.
A tragic example is that of the captain of the RMS Titanic, captain Edward Smith. Under pressure from the White Star Line to set a new Atlantic crossing record for their newest greyhound, Smith ordered the mighty vessel to sail at nearly full speed in a frigid North Atlantic Sea when there were warnings of icebergs in the area. There was no moon that night and so the lookouts in the crow’s nest (they had no radar in those days), Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, did not see the iceberg until the Titanic was about a quarter mile from it. The officer on the bridge, 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller ordered the engine room to reverse engines and pull a hard left rudder. But that was probably what killed the great ship—her rudder was ridiculously small for so large a ship and reversing the engines meant the rudder was even more useless. As a result, the great ship grazed the iceberg, staving in several critical seams near the bow across several water-tight bulkheads. Had she sailed right into the berg, she would have crumpled her bow, but flooded only the bow compartments—and would have survived. So lesson number 1: In an emergency, if you haven’t thought things out yet, don’t go with your first impression!
Now let’s consider a few examples from military history. I know it is not popular today, but the U. S. Civil War can give us many lessons on leadership. In particular, I like the account of General Ulysses Grant in his first head-to-head encounter with the brilliant strategist Robert E. Lee in the Battle of the Wilderness. With a vastly superior army, he was stopped and bloodied by Lee. At one point in the battle, Grant was at his headquarters, whittling on a stick. His generals and staff officers were all in a dither over how badly things were going. Grant heard all he could take and roared, “Some of you always seem to think he [Lee] is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land on our rear and both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” Lesson number 2: Focus on what you CAN control, not one what you cannot.
Then there is Old Blood and Guts, George Patton. In December of 1944, the Allied armies were closing in on Germany and in the north were spread pretty thinly in the Ardennes Forest (which, it was believed, was too dense to allow a major German offensive). That is precisely what happened though as almost 410,000 German troops and 1,400 tanks, including the new super dreadnaught Tiger II, crashed through the Allied lines. The 101st Airborne Division, the all African American 969th Artillery Battalion and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division held Bastogne, a vital crossroads town. The Germans laid siege to the town and threatened to destroy all the American forces there. General Eisenhower, in overall command of the Allied forces, said to his generals at a staff meeting, “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this table.” Patton seized on this statement and said he could grind the Germans up. Eisenhower, skeptical of this boast, since Patton’s Army was over 100 miles to the south and heavily engaged with the Germans themselves, asked how he proposed to do that. Patton replied that he could attack with two divisions within 48 hours. The other staff officers were stunned and doubtful, but Patton had already ordered his commanders to prepare plans for just such a move, and true to his word, within 48 hours, he hit the Germans on their south flank at Bastogne and crushed their advance. Lesson number 3: When things look impossible, don’t lose your head. Prepare as best you can and then execute your plan with determination and energy.
I could go on about other great feats of leadership in the midst of the “fog of war”—Powell and Schwartzkopf in Iraqi Freedom/Desert Storm, Eisenhower at D-Day, Spruance at Midway. But they all have the same lessons. In the midst of uncertainly and rapidly changing developments, remain flexible, don’t let a setback stop you, and constantly seek how the dynamics of the situation may present an opportunity for you.
So chin up, Warriors! We did not foresee these savage counterattacks on our economy, but we will survive them and, as Eisenhower said to his generals during The Bulge, “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster.” Summon the Patton inside of you, the Spruance, the Powell/Schwartzkopf. Stay flexible and ready to hit and hit hard when the opportunity opens itself (and it WILL open itself)!
And yes, there will be cheerful faces at this table!