In the beginning all animals were equal. But lion discovered his magic first. And he decided he wanted to be king. So, he used his magic and grew a long mane about his head. This made him look bigger, bolder and more ferocious. He grew long teeth to rend and tear. His legs grew long and powerful. At the end of each he grew sharp claws. He could make his voice sound like thunder. His mind became cunning.
Lion strutted down a path where he found baboon. “Baboon, bow down to me; I am your king” lion declared. “I will certainly not,” replied baboon, “we are all equal.”
Lion roared and pounced. He clamped down on baboon’s face with his sharp teeth. “Bow down or die.” Baboon whimpered and agreed. So lion walked away proudly. Then baboon discovered his magic, learning to crawl high into trees and so escape lion. He called for the colors of the rainbow to cover the scars on his face. And that is how baboon looks even today.
Then lion saw zebra. His strong limbs sprinted to zebra and lion knocked him down. “Zebra, bow down to me; I am your king.” When zebra hesitated, lion slashed his side with sharp claws. Zebra, crying out in pain, agreed; so lion moved on. Zebra discovered his magic and called upon the ground to yield black ochre to cover his wounds. To this day that is how zebra looks and helps him hide from lion.
Then lion saw giraffe. He ran up to giraffe roaring for submission. Giraffe just trotted away. In his anger lion tried to bite him, claw him. But giraffe’s legs were too long and lion could not reach. But lion was cunning, so he left. He hid in the tall grass by the stream and waited until giraffe came for a drink. Giraffe awkwardly bent his knees and lowered his head to drink. Then lion sprang on him. Given no choice, giraffe agreed that lion would be his king; so lion left. Giraffe discovered his magic and called on the sun to give him spots so he too would be hard for lion to find. And that is how giraffe looks to this day.
While elephant ambled in the tall grassland of his home, his animal friends forewarned him about lion. Elephant discovered his magic.
Lion found elephant and demanded, “bow to me elephant, I am your king.” But elephant’s large ears had heard lion, so he was prepared. “Don’t be absurd,” he said and he waved his large tusks to keep lion away. But cunning lion climbed a tree and leaped onto elephant’s back. He clawed and bit, but elephant’s thick hide did not tear or rend and elephant shook lion off.
So lion waited near the stream in the tall grass until elephant became thirsty. But elephant used his long trunk to water. And when lion rushed at him elephant blew a trunk full of water over lion. With lion’s mane matted down he didn’t look so ferocious anymore. Embarrassed, lion relented.
And that is how lion became king of the jungle. But lion respects elephant and leaves him be.
Human don’t have magic, unless you consider stopping unconsciously at the curb moments before a car zooms by, or looking up from your instrument panel just in time to stop your car from crashing. But this story is not about magic anyway. It’s a story about animal traits and characteristics; each animal in the story uncovered traits that allowed them to be successful.
In business, we refer to these traits or characteristics as competencies. Executives develop competencies over time. We do this through our education, experience and, if we’re lucky, through a mentor who takes an interest in our growth. As we hone our competencies we have the chance to excel in our career.
However, just as lion was unsuccessful in applying the same competencies to dominate all animals, we executives also apply the same competencies developed early in our career to complex business challenges later in our career, even when these competencies don’t lend themselves to the situation.
In the lion fable, rather than assess how best to dominate elephant and use new traits designed to win, he used all the same traits that were so successful against the other animals. Perhaps if he had lured elephant into a tar pit, he could have assumed dominance by helping elephant get out. Maybe he should have challenged young elephant, who had no tusks and thinner hide.
So too, we executives tend to apply approaches we learned when overcoming operational problems to complex strategic situations. Yet, many competencies developed to address operational decisions actually obstruct the executive’s ability to make good strategic decisions.
To start, executives need to identify how the strategic decisions required today differ from the operational decisions made early in a career. For example, in many operational decisions there is an answer that can be calculated, as in the product price that will provide a profit margin of 65%. However, strategic issues generally require more than calculations.
Strategic decisions usually have no right or wrong answer. They are often projecting a future impact, where a number of factors affecting the decision are unknown. And sometimes some facts strongly point to one strategic alternative, while others point equally strongly towards another solution. The competency required to address these types of complexities is discernment: that is, pulling out the most important facts, determining whether there are reasons to accept or dismiss some, and evaluate their impact based on other data.
Here are a few other competencies that executive need to master in order to successfully address strategic issues:
Patience: Early in our career we are rewarded for making quick decisions. This usually works when the answer is simple to evaluate. But as decisions become more complex, patience allows us to delve more deeply, identify the nuances and develop more innovative and comprehensive solutions.
Listening: Junior managers often work alone. They rely on their own intelligence, training and experience to make decisions. However, strategic decisions require input from multiple team members, usually from different corporate disciplines. It is common for sharp executives to begin forming a response to another executive’s comments well before the team member is finished speaking. Failing to listen usually leads to misunderstanding and decision delays. A good listener can help facilitate team progress towards success.
Conflict management: When we start out our career we are afraid of conflict. Almost everyone we deal with has an impact on how fast we ascend in our career, so it’s just better to get along. The argumentative employees are usually dressed down by more experienced managers. Yet to discern the correct strategy, constructive conflict can help the senior executive team develop a greater understanding of the issues and the data. Conflict can stimulate higher level thinking that reveals winning strategies to the company’s complex problems.
These are a few competencies crucial for developing a strategic decision-making skill, which is as important for today’s senior executive, as lion’s claws and mane or elephant’s tusks.