The Crucible of Reality

I was talking history with my old friend Alvin Fu when we both realized that there seemed to be a consistent pattern with some important implications for the startup world

Our conversation began with a discussion of Ulysses S. Grant, the great Civil War General and two-term President:

When the Civil War began, Grant was a miserable failure, working in his father’s tannery after being forced to resign from the Army for excessive drinking.  Three years later, he was the highest-ranking military officer in the United States, and in overall command of all the Union armies.

Two things stand out about Grant’s meteoric rise.  First, Grant was an outsider who had to lobby like mad simply to get back into the regular Army.  And second, his rapid advance came about for one simple reason: he won battles.

The story of Ulysses S. Grant illustrates what Alvin and I dubbed “the crucible of reality.”  During desperate times, nations (and companies) don’t have the luxury of considering anything other than what offers the best chance of survival.

Another example is General Curtis LeMay, the father of the Strategic Air Command:

LeMay grew up in poverty, constantly moving because his father couldn’t hold a job for more than a few months at a time.  In 1940, he was a young 1st Lieutenant in the Army Air Force.  By 1951, he became the second-youngest 4-star general in American history, trailing only…Ulysses S. Grant.

This advancement came despite LeMay’s lack of social or political skill.  Robert McNamara (no stranger to bluntness himself) said of LeMay, “He was the finest combat commander of any service I came across in war.
But he was extraordinarily belligerent, many thought brutal.”

When Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg was considering candidates to lead the Strategic Air Command, one of his aides recommended LeMay.  Vandenberg was reluctant to promote the combative LeMay, but was persuaded when the aide asked, “If war started tomorrow, who would you want in command?”

A similar pattern plays out in the startup world.  In “wartime,” when a startup’s very existence is at stake, the choice is simple: Pick whomever will give you the best chance at survival.  There’s no time for infighting or political appointments.  But in “peacetime,” e.g. when a startup has established itself and is minting money, leaders stop focusing as much on performance, and start considering other factors.  The result is all too familiar–bloat, drift, and indecision.

As an entrepreneur, you need to realize that you’re caught in the crucible of reality.  It’s wartime, not peacetime, and you need to do what it takes to win.  Tradition and comfort are luxuries you can’t afford.

The plus side is that those startups and leaders who are able to deliver results from within the crucible can rise more rapidly than during sleepier times.

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