During a leave from active duty, my GI buddies and I were enjoying culinary delights in a tiny French restaurant. Sitting at a table nearby was another American soldier. He was a battle-worn sergeant with an array of service stripes. He was into his second bottle of wine when the bustle of activity outside the window attracted his attention. It was a wedding party. The soldiers asked the waiter, "Whos that?" The waiter replied in French, "Je ne sais pas!"
Well, the sergeant kept on drinking, we kept on eating, and about an hour or so later a funeral procession came by. The sergeant shouted to the waiter, "Whos that?" The waiter replied, "Je ne sais pas!"And the GI said, "That unlucky slob didnt last long, did he?"
Im reminded of that story whenever Im asked about my personal contributions to my companys successes. My reply is, quite honestly, "Je ne sais pas!" Sure, I made contributions, particularly in my pre-executive years. Those contributions helped me attract attention and won me promotions. But during my years as chief executive, I know that my personal contributions were minimal when compared with those of many of my associates. And that, in my opinion, is how it should be.
Chief executives are supposed to think rather than do. Thats why theyre chief executives. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Thoughts rule the world." Blaise Pascal wrote, "Mans greatness lies in the power of thought." In more contemporary times, the English mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell said it best when he wrote, "Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible. Thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man."
Today, chief executives are confronted with critical complexities every day of their business lives. Their problems are sometimes of their own making. But more often, they are created by others: their employees. Their managers. Their competitors. Their local, state, federal, and global governments. And some by the ever-present dynamics of change. The interrelations among these influences is mind-boggling.
Formal education, no matter how little or how much, hardly prepares a chief executive for the real world of business. In the real world, every new competitor, every new technology, every new law, every new market, and every new product design presents problems that require highly individual, sometimes specific, sometimes unique, and almost always immediate responses. And a chief executives survival is dependent upon his ability to manage change strategically.
What constitutes strategic thinking? My definition: A thinking process that employs judgmental reasoning to solve complex problems that can have a highly positive or highly negative effect on your company. Many of these problems are apparent. Many are not. Thats why one of the major ingredients of effective strategic thinking is anticipating the unexpected -- and planning for it.
Im not talking about problem-solving games such as brainstorming, visualization, and free association. These techniques may help you solve crossword puzzles or assemble model airplanes, but they wont help you win market share, outperform your competitors, develop a new product line, or, most important, protect your companys future.
A high IQ wont help you, either. As a matter of fact, good poker players make better strategic planners than Phi Beta Kappas or valedictorians. A strategic planner is rarely thrown off-balance by a surprise or happenstance and enjoys anticipating the consequences of unforeseen events.
The best way I can describe the unique skills required by the strategic thinker is to imagine yourself as an individual who, because of a serious accident, has had his or her brains frontal lobes damaged and removed surgically. Your IQ will remain unaffected. However, you will lose your ability to solve new and complex problems. You will be able to work crossword puzzles and math problems, but you wont be able to set goals, think imaginatively, or anticipate the unexpected.
We all know some people who show the same symptoms as lobotomized chief executives. Some work for the IRS. Some work for the U.S. Postal Service. And some even have law degrees. But dont tell them I said so. Je ne sais pas!
Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.