Make No Small Plans

Charles D. Schultz

President at Beyta Gear Service
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

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“Make no small plans” has been attributed to a variety of people over the years, but that doesn’t undermine its importance to fledgling leaders. The argument is that small plans fail to inspire, and as a result nothing gets accomplished. A corollary would be, “Aim high, because gravity will pull the arrow down.”

When ranking “great leaders,” historians frequently consider the magnitude of the undertaking — seemingly forgetting or ignoring the final outcome. Of course, world conquerors sit at the head of the class. But inventors of useful, everyday objects? Find a seat in the back. No credit is given to those who maintain anything.

If you want to write a best-selling book on “leadership,” don’t waste your time interviewing people who reliably turn a profit, regardless of the “economy.” People want to learn about movers and shakers — not consistent performers. My recent posts on the “management training” fads of the late 20th century were rooted in the canonization of people who made huge plans, executed them well for a while, and frequently left an unsustainable mess for their successor.

I file planning under “vision.” Some people study a situation and come up with a solution that no one ever thought of before — or at least that wasn’t widely known before. Despite evidence that the Vikings/Irish/Chinese/Polynesians got to North America first, Columbus gets the credit for discovering a New World. The fact that he was looking for an express lane to India is not considered important anymore.

His crew probably felt differently at the time. So do most employees when the boss’ vision doesn’t turn out as planned. Good leaders learn from small failures and tailor their next presentation accordingly. The joke in Viking history circles is that after failing to attract many buyers for the tillable real estate on Iceland, the explorers — Realtor in their blood, apparently — shrewdly renamed their next development Greenland.

Seriously, you won’t get many followers if your vision includes loads of work and discomfort — but no shared rewards. Far too many business initiatives run out of energy when they reach the stage where the end results are further away than expected, and finger pointing replaces pep talks.

The best leaders can get their team through those bleak passages. Lincoln had plenty of naysayers undermining him and urging a negotiated end to the U.S. Civil War. Why should your project be any different?

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