New Year Reflections: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

A 12th century French monk, Bernard of Chartres, once observed that he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” Since 1999, I have reviewed about 3,600 business books (for Amazon US, UK, and Canada) and interviewed about 650 thought leaders. Those are indeed broad shoulders to stand atop and I have learned much of great value.

Over time, my own thoughts about the business world have changed — as has the business world — and so have the thoughts of those from whom I’ve learned so much. Long ago, Heraclitus suggested that “everything changes, nothing changes.”

That is certainly true. The business world today really is much more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than any prior time that I can recall.

That said, the basic questions that must be answered remain essentially the same:

o Who is our customer?
o What is our core business?
o Where and how should we do business?
o How can we create or increase demand for what we sell?
o How can we create what Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell characterize as “customer evangelists”?

Few of the C-level executives I have known could answer all five accurately.

These are among the most valuable insights I have gained from various thought leaders:

“I look at good leaders like sheepdogs. Good sheepdogs have to follow three rules. Number one, you can bark a lot, but you don’t bite. Number two, you have to be behind; you cannot be ahead of the sheep. Number three, you must know where to go, and you mustn’t lose the sheep.” Jim Collins

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

“Every company knows what it does and most companies understand how they do it, But very few firms really understand and articulate why they exist — the goal or mission that inspires their employees to get out of bed in the morning…People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Simon Sinek

“Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.” Voltaire

“There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Peter Drucker

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead
“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” Mead again

“Champions get up when they can’t.” Jack Dempsey

“Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.” Sun Tzu

“People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.” Theodore Levitt

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Abraham Lincoln

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.” Warren Buffett

I’ve used several of these (and other) insights when planning and conducting workshops for corporate executives. Many of the quotations can be juxtaposed with one or more of the “must answer” questions cited earlier. Each of them suggests at least one valuable business lesson, if not several.

In recent years, I have conducted a few workshops that focus on the power of effective storytelling. I point out to participants that almost all great leaders throughout history (e.g. Jesus with parables, Lincoln with anecdotes) used the basic elements of a story to anchor their ideas and calls-to-action in a human context. In my opinion, the greatest value — other than entertainment — is its ability to establish a rapport between hearts as well as between minds.

When hundreds of parents wrote to Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer) complaining about tuition increases, this was her response: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

With the arrival of another new year, my lifelong learning continues and so should yours.

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