Leading Edge: Thinking like Winston Churchill

Originally Published in Materials Management & Distribution Magazine

The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Sir Winston Churchill

I think it’s fair to say we all enjoy the day when everything comes together neatly—a plan that falls into place, a goal being met, a result that we planned and worked for being realized.

But it’s probably also true that there are more days than not when it doesn’t quite feel like everything’s coming together. Maybe it’s a shift in what the customer wants, maybe it’s a lack of alignment among team members, or maybe the original plan was flawed.

There are countless reasons why business can be challenging. Those days require re-commitment, rethinking and re-energizing ourselves with a plan that can succeed. Those days require us to think like Sir Winston Churchill and see the opportunity in the difficulty.

As a young man early in my career within the transportation industry, I observed an important lesson about opportunity. It was an unusually cold winter day—even for Winnipeg. Trucks don’t like to start on days like that. Diesel fuel doesn’t flow like it should, drivers are challenged by the conditions, and yet freight needs to move expeditiously.

Our maintenance manager was feeling the pressure; the look on his face showed both frustration and exhaustion. At this point his boss asked a simple question: “What’s the temperature this morning over at the competition’s terminal?”

The answer, of course, was that it was exactly the same as ours. So the inspiring leader said: “Then we have the opportunity to be smarter, more determined and more successful in this difficult environment.” The maintenance manager got the point, was thankful for the encouragement, and did indeed find ways not only that day—but over his entire career—to seize the opportunity in the midst of difficulty.

In my current role in the recruitment business we need to find opportunity in every difficulty. If recruitment weren’t difficult, neither we, nor any other specialist in recruitment would be in business. If companies could simply post a position and receive résumés to fill critical roles, we would have to find other another way to earn a living.

The reality is that great talent is in short supply, and finding the best in the industry takes strategic focus and experienced effort. So we embrace the difficult reality and keep researching, interviewing and assessing talent until we reach our goal. We’re thankful that the difficulty provides us with business opportunity.

One of the most interesting and recent examples of embracing opportunity that includes plenty of difficulty is Amazon’s enormous logistics success. Right now they deliver about 1.6 million packages per day.

Just imagine the number of potential challenges with this as a daily target. An absolute myriad of things can go wrong, and yet they continue to grow and succeed at a remarkable pace.

Clearly it takes a leader who sees opportunity in the midst of difficulty and assembles a team who think and act the same way. And their story is just getting started.

On a much more personal level I think of my colleague and friend whose doctor recently shared with him a dreaded cancer diagnosis. Not many things will get your attention like that does and I can only imagine the temptation to focus on the difficulties ahead.

I know there were certainly some dark hours. But my friend was determined to push on with all the positivity he could muster, to draw upon the inner strength provided by his creator, and to study and to determine—along with his doctors—the best course of action, which ultimately led to his current clean bill of health. Truly he is an inspiration to me and to many others as we saw him seize upon opportunity when presented with enormous difficulty.

It’s worth remembering Sir Winston Churchill’s words uttered just before the Battle of Britain. “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.”

Perhaps none of us will face the challenge that he and his armed forces did in those days. It would have been easy to see only difficulty, to focus only on the pessimistic reality. But Churchill was anything but a pessimist.

And the rest, of course, is history, and history that we all have greatly benefited from.

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