Business & Leadership Behaviors Random Thoughts

The American Tradition: Flexibility & Risk

Being a World War II history buff, I recently came across an article by Victor Davis Hanson on the “Lessons from the Battle of Midway”. I believe history is a continuous source for education (reminders or new perspectives), and this article reinforced that sentiment.   Not only should we always honor the memories of our military and their sacrifices, but use those sacrifices and lessons to improve our future.

The article does a good job of identifying how an overmatched American fleet (number of ships/planes/experience/etc.) was able to secure victory. The key elements that helped to drive that success can also set the same tone for our business success.


For Midway, flexibility showed up in a number of ways leading up to and during the battle. This approach was completely foreign to the Japanese who direction was top down – and ridged.

  • We allowed our Intelligence Officers to be creative and look outside-the-box, and then gave them the latitude to pursue those concepts.
  • They threw out the tradition repair processes for damaged ships and significantly improved performance and our odds at Midway by the resulting increase to our carrier fleet by 50%
  • During the battle itself the senior leadership allowed the execution team (fleet & unit commanders) the discretion to manage the battle on the front line

The same flexibility can help smaller companies (like ours) in our pursuit of business when competing against much larger or stronger organizations with vastly greater pools of resources. We need to leverage our flexibility to adapt more quickly than the more complex and bureaucratic organizations.

  • Hire the best resources – but give them the intellectual freedom and trust to come up with revolutionary ideas
  • Concentrate our preparation on only those items that assist in accomplishing our goals versus what the original plan may have directed or what procedures require
  • Adjust plans rapidly to adapt at all levels as we learn from our successes and failures to make any execution effort more relevant in achieving success


Rather than hide from conflict, America looked for opportunities to engage – just not in the traditional or “expected” manner. At Midway we knew we were an inferior competitor, but also knew that the only way you can win is to be engaged – not hide. The challenge for the senior naval leadership was to come up with a plan that maximized the tools they had with a motivated team.

  • They understood and were committed to taking a chance versus playing it safe
  • They concentrated all of their planes, ships and military personnel on the attacking carrier fleet – focusing their resources to improve the odds
  • They relied on the independence and strength of the American spirit against the Japanese Samurai courage to offset their lack of experience

In business, we have all the same challenges when we’re looking at opening up new markets or growing our existing market presence. Growth is the foundation of our future success, but requires us to go into new territory and incur the risk that creates.

  • Once we make a decision, we need to be “all in”. Hesitancy can lead to questions and eventual distractions
  • We need to identify our top goals, focus all of our energy and resources at them and have the confidence to ignore the “other noise” around us
  • Create and then count on your team’s ability to execute the plan through excellent communication of the goals with continuous feedback and update of the plans

Americans love supporting underdogs. Beginning with winning our nation’s independence, we have never avoided the challenge – even when we don’t look as “good on paper” as our competitor.

We accept our goals and use our freedom and creativity against the odds to establish a winning strategy – but it doesn’t come without risks. Without that attitude and commitment, there wouldn’t be start-up businesses. Think of the impact, given the fact that economists tell us that start-ups are the foundation of our economic success as a nation.

So whether you’re a start-up business or even a new operation in an existing larger organization – embrace Flexibility and Risk. Build that creative strategy, focus your attention, provide excellent bi-directional communications and count on the team you brought to the game. I think you’ll like the results….