Our circumstances often make progress and success difficult. If we fall short, the temptation is to point to our circumstances as reasons why (“We fell short because…”). But good leadership is about “despite”, not “because”.
The reality is that bad things happen. Even if the bad things are unknown when we begin the effort, we should expect them anyway. “Unknown” doesn’t mean “unexpected”. We should build our plans and operate in such a way that allows us to absorb the additional challenges that often arise. Doing this enables us to make progress and succeed despite them. Think about it like this: When you get to the end of the year, you can either say, “We worked hard but fell short because of [a, b, and, c]. Or you can say, “During the year, several challenges arose, none of which we knew about at the start; but we succeeded despite those things.” The first one is somewhat consoling. The second one is inspiring.
Succeeding despite difficult circumstances doesn’t happen by accident. It happens as a result of the choices we make to prepare and plan for the challenges even before they occur, as well as how we respond with discipline, creativity, and perseverance once they happen. In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins tells this story (I’ve summarized):
In 1911, two teams set out for the South Pole. One team was led by Amundsen; the other was led by Scott. Amundsen’s team made it there and back, while Scott’s team perished. Although the two teams faced nearly identical conditions, they differed in their choices related to discipline, preparation, creativity, and ambition. Amundsen’s team survived and succeeded despite their circumstances, while Scott’s team perished because of them.
Even if you currently aren’t racing to the South Pole, you still might be facing multiple challenges at almost every step of whatever journey you’re on. Remember “despite, not because.” This is a lot of what leadership is about. We all can be very good at diagnosing our shortfall and explaining all of the valid reasons why we couldn’t do more. But a big part of leadership is about finding a way forward despite it all.