Monthly Archives: May 2015

Success Story: George Washington at Newburgh

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May 12, 2015

In Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile,  Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein find themselves in a bar in Paris in 1904.  One year later, Einstein published The Special Theory of Relativity, and Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.  

In this scene, Germaine, a waitress, is trying to be helpful to Einstein.  The issue she is trying to help with is “How many people do you have to influence in order to be successful?”

Germaine:  Einstein, I’m trying to help you  here.  You want your book to have impact, don’t you?

Einstein:  Sure.

Germaine:  And it you want it to have impact, you’ve got to have people read it, don’t you?

Einstein:  Yes…

Germaine:  Okay, in your field, how many people do you figure have to read your book to have some impact?

Einstein:  One.

Germaine:  No, no, no.  In order for your book to have impact, you’ve got to get a lot of people to read it; every man in the street has got to have one.

Einstein:  No, only one. Max

Germaine:  Max?

Einstein:  Max Planck, a German physicist, very influential.  If he reads it, he makes my reputation.

Germaine:  Well, you’re lucky.  If your market is one person and you know his name,  you can put a limit on what you’re going to spend on advertising…

We Are In the Influence Business 

This issue – how many people do we need to influence in order to make progress toward our goals  - is an important one, and, together with its counterpart, “How should we go about influencing these people,” make up a substantial part of our personal agendas.  Whether we like it or not, we are all in the “influence business,” from trying to make a good impression, to attempting to persuade others to agree with us,  to recruiting others to join us in our plans and projects.  Once in a while, like Einstein, our focus is on one other person: A colleague, spouse, boss, child,  or neighbor.  Many times, however, we are faced with the more complicated challenge of influencing many people at the same time.  Our efforts to convince and persuade others continue throughout our lives. We are never finished with our attempts to bring people over to our side.

While there are many issues about which we want to influence and persuade others, if we intend to make progress toward our goals there is one that is among the most important:  Helping other people understand the differences between tame and wicked problems.   When we are working with other people on problems, most of which will be wicked, understanding the nature of the problem on the table is a critical first step.  After all, what we are facing is not a common, run-of-the-mill problem but an uncommon one,  one with special characteristics and complicating elements.

Why Worry about Differences Between Tame and Wicked?

Why is it important that we persuade others that wicked problems are different?  Among the many reasons there are three that stand out.  First, Quantity:  Most of our most important problems are wicked and not tame. There is and there will be an endless parade of wicked problems to be addressed and managed.    Second, Quality:  Wicked problems are qualitatively different than tame ones. The difference is not just apples and oranges, but more like apples and watermelons.  And finally,  Approach: Understanding the difference between tame and wicked helps reveal an important truth: We cannot treat wicked problems as if they were tame.  If we do – a frequent mistake –  we will make little progress, and the probability of making things worse rises precipitously.  Wicked problems require an entirely different approach than do tame ones.

What we must be good at, then, is teaching and persuading others about the nature of the problems we face, then guiding them toward the most appropriate action steps to take .  Unlike Einstein and his task of persuading Max Planck,  we often find ourselves going beyond attempting to persuade one other person and instead, reach out to groups of people:  Families,  teams, organizations, and in the case of elected officials, communities and nations.

George Washington Saves the Nation

An example from our country’s history offers us a success story in how to persuade others and helps us identify the skills and abilities needed to do it successfully.  As the Revolutionary War was drawing to a close, George Washington, in circumstances fraught with danger,  faced up to a problem that was not only wicked, but one that threatened the very survival of the emerging nation of the United States.

In March, 1783,  the Revolutionary Army, while waiting for a peace treaty with England to be signed in Paris,  was wintering at Newburgh, New York.  On March 10, an unsigned paper circulated among the senior officers of the army. It invited them to a meeting to be held the next day to consider measures to pressure the Continental Congress into meeting their demands for redress of their many grievances.  Congress had been consistently delinquent in paying salaries and providing resources with which to wage the war against England, and the officers by then had had enough.  Since the meeting had not been called by Washington, who was Commander of the Armies, it was contrary to regulations and bordered on mutiny. Even more ominously, the letter hinted that the only way forward was for the military to take over the government.

Alexander Hamilton, among others, told Washington not to be concerned.  The officers would meet and discuss their complaints, he believed, but it was not serious and the matter would be quickly forgotten.

Washington thought otherwise.  As the historian Alexander Flexner wrote in George Washington in the America Revolution (1775-1783),  he was filled with ” ‘inexpressible concern.’  He had been prepared for nothing like this.  He considered it a ‘storm which had gathered so suddenly and unexpectedly’….He saw that if the army were allowed to terrorize civilians for political ends, the whole future of the United States would have been turned into a new course.”

So Washington wrote to Hamilton that it was his duty to “arrest on the spot the foot that stood wavering on a tremendous precipice, to prevent the officers from being taken by surprise while the passions were all inflamed, and to rescue them from plunging themselves into a gulf of civil horror from which there might be no receding…”

Washington then took two preemptive steps: First he issued an order expressing “disapprobation of such disorderly proceedings;”  and second, he called a meeting of his own to be held several days later on March 15.  If the officers decided meet on March 15th, rather than participating in a possibly treasonous meeting they would be attending a legal one sponsored by Washington himself.  Washington gave them cover. He wanted the officers to gather together where he could have a chance to confront them directly. When informing the senior officers of the meeting, Washington had indicated that he would not attend, and that the “senior officer in rank present will be pleased to preside and report the proceedings to the Commander in Chief.”

When the meeting was called to order by the second in command of the army,  Horatio Gates, the “conspirators,”  according to Flexner,  ”were pleased to see that Washington had adhered to his resolution:”  He was not present. Suddenly, a door near the front of the hall opened.  ”Everyone turned their heads, and then His Excellency strode out into general view.”  Washington appeared to be “sensibly agitated.”  For the first time in his military career since he had won the hearts of the army in 1776 in Cambridge,  ”he saw in the faces of his officers not affection, not pleasure in his being present, but resentment, embarrassment, and in some cases anger.”

Washington came prepared.  In a speech that lasted 15 or 20 minutes he told the officers that he not only sympathized with them, but he supported them in their efforts to find remedies for the many abuses that Congress had heaped upon them.  What was of greatest concern, Washington added, was the way that they choose to express their dissatisfaction and unhappiness:

 ”Let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity,…to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood gates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.”

When Washington finished speaking, he looked at the men he had led in the past six years through so much sacrifice and realized that he had failed to move them.  ”…the chill in the Temple had not thawed,” writes Flexner.  ”The familiar faces looking  up at him were uneasy, perplexed, sullen.”  After pausing for a minute of two,  seemingly unsure what to do next, Washington reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper.  ”This was a letter from a member of Congress” Washington said,”that would show the officers that that body was trying to deal with their problems.  He would read it.”

The officers stirred impatiently in their seats, as if to say “You cannot convince us with more empty words.”

Then, in Flexner’s words, “suddenly every heart missed a beat.  Something was wrong with His Excellency.”  He seem confused and uncertain.  ”Then, fumbling in his waistcoat pocket he pulled out something that only his intimates had seen him wear.  A pair of glasses.  With infinite sweetness and melancholy,  he explained, ‘Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.’ ”

“This simple statement,” continues Flexner, “achieved all that Washington’s rhetoric and all his arguments had been unable to achieve.  The officers were instantly in tears, and, from the behind the shining drops, their eyes looked with love at the commander who had led them all so far and so long.”

Washington then read the letter, turned and walked out of the hall, mounted his horse and rode away.  The incipient revolution was over and everyone knew it.  All except the most determined of the conspirators “returned to their quarters with a sense of happiness at their own noble behavior and with gratitude to their leader who had led them [back] into virtuous paths.”

The Newburgh Conspiracy was one of the greatest tests of Washington’s leadership, and  it was resolved peacefully and respectfully.

What If He Had Failed?

If  Washington had failed to persuade the officers to change course they were on  ”The result would have certainly been been..bloodshed,” writes  Flexner.  If the officers of the army had attempted to take over the government, the state’s governments would certainly have resisted with force, and the result would have been civil war.  ”Had expeditionary forces captured all thirteen capitals, even that would not necessarily have pacified the countryside.”  And what would have followed?   Flexner believed that eventually there would have emerged from the tumult and turmoil several small nations, each of which would have been susceptible to threats from the European powers, especially England.

“Americans can never be adequately grateful” writes Flexner,  ”that George Washington possessed the power and the will to intervene successfully in what may well have been the most dangerous hour the United States has ever known.”

Why Washington Succeeded

During the Revolutionary War Washington faced many crises that threatened to bring to an end the struggle for independence in the American colonies.  The mutiny of the officers at Newburgh was without a doubt the most serious. When faced with this most “wicked” of wicked problems,  Washington rose to meet the challenge and was able to exert his “power and will” upon the hundreds of angry and frustrated officers who had decided to take matters into their own hands.

How did he do it?

 He perceived the difference between Signal and Noise:  Throughout all of the years of the war, the soldiers and their officers were unhappy, restive and frustrated with the way they were treated by Congress and by the various states that had sent them to war.  Yet when Washington learned of the scheduled meeting, he instinctively knew that this not the normal “noise” in the system, but an important “signal” that something serious was afoot.

Being able to separate out the “signals” from the “noise” is an important, even crucial ability.

He moved toward the problem:  When confronted by a wicked problem, one can turn Away From the Problem – ignore it, leave the field, deny that it exists; or can turn Against the Problem – attack those who seem to be responsible; or move Toward It – ready to do whatever is required. Washington moved with alacrity and energy toward the festering problem that threatened to create such havoc.

He was prepared:  In preparation for his appearance before the officers in the Temple, he spent the better part of a day preparing what he wanted to say to them.  Did he also plan his gesture with the spectacles?  No one knows.  Whether planned or intuitive, however, it was a brilliant move.

He embraced the “mess”: Once Washington grasped the importance of what was about to happen, he made himself responsible for dealing with it.  He “owned” it.  He went to the meeting prepared to take whatever actions were required.

He took the initiative:  There was nothing timid or half-hearted about Washington’s actions.   They were robust and decisive. He let the officers know at once that their actions were unacceptable.  He set up his own meeting, then strode into the very center of the “mess”  and took control.

He showed understanding for their concerns:  In addition to letting them know that what they were planning was unacceptable,  even treasonous, he called  his own meeting and made it possible for them to avoid getting involved in unlawful acts.

He identified with the officers:  Washington shared the officer’s concerns and he let them know it. Throughout the war his most frequent communications with Congress were to plead for more support.

He did not attack nor blame:  Rather than blame, accuse, or demean the officers,  he reasoned with them.  And when that did not work, he shared his own experiences with them

He possessed “political capital” and knew how and when to use it:  Political capital is a non-monetary resource available to people to use when they set out to persuade or influence others.  It consists primarily of three  elements:  One’s reputation in the eyes of important others;  the positive quality of the relationships that have been built in the past; and one’s past track record in achieving success.  When setting out to persuade others to come over to one’s position, those who have it can “call in their chips.”   With the country at large, and especially with the soldiers and officers, Washington’s reputation was immense and unassailable.  The history of the United States, and perhaps of the world,  contains no example of a man so honored, so revered or so respected  as was George Washington.  At the same time, his relationships with his key officers, while not warm or intimate, were strong.   When on March 15, 1783, he went to the meeting hall to meet with the officers, he possessed a reservoir of political capital and was ready to use it.

He was clear about the future consequences of their actions:  When speaking to the officers, he reminded them that actions have consequences, and that drastic actions have drastic consequences.  The officers were worried about their short-term privations and mistreatments.  Washington focused upon the larger perspective and the long-term repercussions of the drastic act they were contemplating a revolt against the lawful government.  He did what only he could do:  Share the larger perspective of situations and events.

He reframed the event from treason to seeking common understanding and solving problems peacefully:  Rather than accuse the men of treason – something that in a technical sense was true – Washington reframed what was happening from rebellion and treason to more positive ways of solving problems.

He did the unexpected:  Having informed the leaders of the incipient revolution that he would not attend,  he  suddenly appeared and, catching them by surprise, changed the narrative from “let’s decide how to take over the government” to “let us reason together to find solutions.”

He was flexible: When he saw that the reasonable approach he had counted upon was not working, he changed his approach.

He made it personal:   Among all of the ways to influence others, appropriate self-disclosure is among the most powerful.  Sharing one’s personal feelings, worries and concerns in timely and appropriate ways can go beyond reason and logic and touch the emotions.  This is tricky business, however, and must be done skillfully.  When Washington, with “infinite sweetness and melancholy” explained that he could not read the letter without his spectacles because he had become ” almost blind in the service of my country,” he clearly touched the hearts of the officers, leading them to changing their purposes and goals.

His understood the power of a dramatic moment:  Not only did Washington appear unexpectedly, but once he saw that his aim had been achieved, he knew it was time to leave.   Without a word he left the hall, mounted his horse and rode away.  His dramatic exit added to the emotional power of the moment.

Very few of us will ever be called upon to intervene in such a serious problem with such far reaching implications as Washington at Newburgh.  But each of us will be offered many opportunities to convince others that what we are struggling with is not only a serious problem but is also a wicked one.   Our ability to persuade others may make all of the difference.

Not If, But When

The reality is not if we will face a time when we must persuade others that the times are dire and require a different approach but when that challenge will present itself.   The words of another great president are instructive.  In the darkest days of the Civil Way,  Abraham Lincoln wrote to the Congress, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew…”

Being prepared and ready to persuade others to think and act differently  is both a challenge and an opportunity.  When the occasion is “piled high with difficulty,” do we possess, as did Washington at Newburgh, “the power and the will to intervene successfully?”  If yes, then when our time comes to lead others to “think anew and act anew,” we will be prepared. If the answer is no, then our learning agenda is clear.  We have a great deal of work to do!


“…A Predicament Unlike Any Other”


May 4

Things that are hard: 

- Saying “I’m sorry.”

- Saying “I was wrong.”

- Saying “I am wrong” when you are mostly right.

-Not saying “I told you so.”

- Narrowing the gap between what you say and what you do.

- When in the middle of a complex, complicated and constantly changing “mess,” trying to figure out what is going on.

-When attacked, deciding not become defensive and choosing to walk away.

- Listening to what others say about you and your behavior when you would prefer not to.

-  Hitting a baseball with a skinny piece of wood when the ball is thrown at you at almost 100 miles per hour by a skilled athlete who isn’t too concerned about hitting you in the head with it.

- Deep multitasking where you are juggling family, career, health, financial pressures, serious conflicts with key people, and serious disappointment all at the same time.

- Learning to “suffer fools gladly.”

A Student’s Question

This review of things that are hard had its origin in a student’s question from a number of years ago.  I was teaching an Executive MBA class titled “Advanced Leadership: Grappling with Wicked Problems” and the discussion turned to difficult things we had struggled with in our own lives.   ”What was the most difficult problem you ever faced?”  the student asked me.

Her question led me to reflect on the difficult challenges and troublesome problems that I have faced in my life and what I ended up doing about them.

What came to mind were not specific problems but Projects:  sets of problems, challenges and opportunities packaged into a program.  The most difficult project that I struggled with was getting through graduate school.  Even now, many years later, it remains the single biggest obstacle that I ever climbed over.  Like all projects that are important to us, it contained literally hundreds of difficult problems, most of them wicked.  Over the years I often remarked, “If had known at the beginning what it was going to be like, I never would have started it!”

The student’s question is worth examining in depth.  If you were asked the question, “What is the most difficult task – assignment, responsibility,  project – that you have faced in your life?”, most of you would answer as I did, with the name not of a problem but of a project.  When we talk about our lives we occasionally  focus upon a specific event or problem – “I had polio when I was eleven years old” – but most of the time we use project language –  making marriage work; raising children to be productive and happy members of society;  finding and keeping a job that is both satisfying and rewarding; ensuring  financial security; establishing and sustaining meaningful relationships; finding meaning and purpose in life – all these are challenges that include literally hundreds of separate problems.  Once we have identified a project,  it is then we often share a specific event or problem situation that we faced within that project.

What is The Most Difficult? 

In spite of the worthiness and difficulty of each of the project mentioned above, my belief is that the hardest task faced by a human being is successfully providing leadership to a large organization or system.  Given the way leadership is defined and structured, it is extremely difficult to be adequate to this challenge, let alone skillful and successful at it.  In many ways it is “impossible work.”  ”The general manager has a predicament unlike any other,” claims Robert F. Bruner, Dean of the Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia.  ”This person is subject to immense pressure from others…must analyze carefully and comprehensively, [and yet always] under conditions of incomplete information…must have a bias for action.”

The pressures on the person at the top are not only immense but relentless. He or she must try and satisfy different groups of stakeholders, none of whom will ever be satisfied:  The shareholders want more dividends; the employees want higher salaries and more benefits and to be treated with respect and consideration; customers want high-quality products at reasonable prices, and services that meet or exceed their expectations; community leaders want active participation in community events together with increasing taxes; local governments expect corporations to be good citizens; and the Federal Government expects the company to comply with all of its rules and regulations.  While it may be possible for a general manager to excel at one or two of these demands, meeting them all at a level of excellence is impossible.

Further complicating the life of the general manager are the Big Questions that must be answered, and then, as times change, answered again and again:

  • What are the goals that we should hold, and how are we to set them?
  • How should we organize ourselves in order to reach them?
  • How should we allocate our always limited resources?
  • How should we assess our progress and measure our success?
  • How should we distribute rewards and offer recognitions to those who are successful?

Among the most difficult of all is finding and managing an appropriate and productive method for arriving at answers to these questions, none of which have correct or final answers.

But the most difficult task of leadership is a meta-project: Struggling with an endless series of wicked problems that can never be completely understood, can never be “solved,” and can never be delegated to others.  This requires leaders to make high-risk decisions about complicated issues without time enough to gain sufficient information to understand the complexities of the situations they face.  They must face these challenges with no opportunity for a “mulligan,” a do-over.  While they may be given some slack in the beginning, the leader at the top is expected to achieve whatever is required and to do it relatively quickly:  Complete the turnaround; “fix” the morale problem; gain market share; return to profitability; make the merger successful.  Yet in a very real sense, they only have one chance to show what they can do.  When it comes to wicked problems, there is no right to be wrong.  And finally, all leaders know where it is that the buck stops.

The Struggle

People who have spent time at the top understand much of this. They have, after all, lived through it.  Ben Horowitz, in The Hard Thing About Hard Things:  Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, has a name for the time spent trying one’s best to lead a company forward.  He calls it The Struggle.  Here are some of his insights:

  • The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.
  • The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is The Struggle.
  • The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head…and don’t believe that you should be CEO.
  • The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse.
  • The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone.
  • When you are in The Struggle, nothing is easy and nothing feels right.  You have dropped into the abyss and you may never get out.

The Bottom Line 

But despair and desolation are not the end of this story.  It is only in the The Struggle, says Horowitz, that the most important lessons can be learned.  In sharing his experiences with The Struggle, Horowitz leads us directly to the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that I have used in earlier essays:  I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. By working our way  through The Struggle,  we discover, as did Horowitiz,  that the simplicity that matters and that makes a difference is to be found on the other side of complexity.  Here are five of the truths that he discovered on the other side:

“This is not checkers. This is motherf***ing three-dimensional chess!”   The nature of organizational life is that everything is always changing, always moving.  ”The underlying technology moves, the market moves, the people move…everything moves.”  It’s white water, all of the time.

“Don’t put it all on your shoulders!”  You didn’t cause it all, and you can’t take care of it all.  Find others to help. “Share every burden you can,” says Horowitz.  ”Get the maximum number of brains on the problems.”  When Horowitz’s company seem to be losing every competitive deal, “I called an all hands and told the whole company we were getting our asses kicked, and if we didn’t stop the bleeding, we were going to die.  Nobody blinked.  The team rallied, built a winning product, and saved my sorry ass.”

Play long enough and you might get lucky!”  Horowitz learned how to hang on.  Working in the rapidly changing world of technology, he discovered that “tomorrow looks nothing like today.  If you survive long enough to see tomorrow, it may bring you the answer that seems so impossible today.”

Don’t take it personally.”  Making mistakes is what CEO’s do. It is to be expected.  It is also, Horowitz believes, the only way to learn the most important lessons.   “Every CEO makes thousands of mistakes.  Evaluating yourself and giving yourself an F doesn’t help.”

“Remember that this is what separates the women from the girls.”  It is The Struggle, and all that that requires of a leader, that leads to greatness.  ”If you want to be great, this is the challenge.”

“A Predicament Like No Other”

We return to the question with which we started. “What is the most difficult challenge of all?”  One answer, of course, is that it  is the one we are facing at the moment! From a more dispassionate perspective, however, a strong case can be made that it is providing leadership to a company or organization.  The Work of Leadership is wrestling with a succession of intractable, messy, wicked problems day-in and day-out.  What this means is clear: The most important asset for all leaders is the ability to work successfully with problems, especially wicked ones. Ian Mitroff in Smart Thinking for Crazy Times, in a quote I cited earlier, gets it just right: “The ability to spot the right problems, frame them correctly, and implement appropriate solutions to them is the true competitive edge and will separate the successful individuals, organizations, and societies from the also-rans.”

What can be done in the face of the “predicament like no other?”  Find the right problem, get others involved, define it in ways that leads to the development of an action plan that when implemented makes things better.  And keep doing it.