From 177 to 2011: Good Strategies Never Go Out of Date

David Kalman
Managing Director, Digital Interactive, Root
with Tom Vitro, Vice President Leadership Development, PepsiCo

“We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.” George Washington

The beginning of a new year always provides an opportunity to take stock of our current state and speculate on the road ahead. 2011 has the good fortune of having been saddled with about as much baggage as any year in recent memory. Our hope is that this is the year that jobs return, the economy strengthens, we figure out how to harness the promise of new technologies, and we find a way to regain the commitment and engagement of our employees.

At a time when most people are looking to the future, it also makes sense to look back for some inspiration and clarity about how we will enable the shift from the inertia that has been caused by all the fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the marketplace to aligned and aggressive movement toward the goals of our businesses. If we look a long way back, to the beginnings of the United States, we can find some wisdom that could help us in this new decade of the 21st century.

In George Washington’s military and political career, he had a unique ability to inspire deep trust, loyalty, and commitment. As we consider what Washington’s men endured at Valley Forge during the War for Independence, when things were not going well and even the weather was against them, we can see some parallels between December of 1776 and December
of 2010.

Clearly, what we’re facing now isn’t as painful or difficult as what the Colonials had to deal with, but there are some interesting similarities between the emotions – fear, uncertainty, doubt – and what it took to get them “unstuck” and where we are today. It’s reassuring to know that “we’ve been here before” and we know how to move forward. It comes down to returning to what we know works.

In my view, this is what our early leaders had that we still need today:

  • Trust and confidence in leadership. Despite hardships, Washington never lost the confidence of his men and their belief that he would lead them to victory. He and his team always projected an aligned front and commitment to the plan regardless of their own differences. The troops never saw a less than confident or less than unified leadership team.
    Tom Vitro, VP Leadership Development at PepsiCo, has another take on this approach. He says, “Great leaders surround themselves with talented people, and then trust them to do their jobs. I’ve heard it said that great leaders don’t get people to do their jobs – they get people to do their best. Delegate responsibly, set the bar high, provide support, and remove barriers when necessary, but above all get out of the way. You may be surprised at the engagement, creativity, and ownership that emerge.”
  • A solid strategic plan. Washington and his team developed a strategy that used the strength of their forces against the weaknesses of the enemy. In communicating this plan, the leaders built pride and passion that gained buy-in and commitment to the battle plan.
  • Constant reminders of the ultimate goal. Each soldier had joined the cause not to “fight”
    but to help create something together. Washington reminded them that they were not just waging a war – they were fighting for a better way of life, one that hadn’t existed anywhere before.

The enthusiasm, excitement, and hope that the future deserves, let’s remember that we have the ability to jump-start our organizations and get our people back in the game. If we take a page from Washington’s playbook, it just takes some inspirational leadership, a winning strategy, and a reminder of what our collective efforts are helping to build.