Driving Without Your Headlights

The faster you move, the brighter they have to be

Todd Ordal

Author E.L. Doctorow once said: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

This also describes running a business. You can only see so far down the road, and you must be comfortable with the ambiguity. You can look at road maps that others have followed, but their destination is different from yours. Following directions that took someone from Denver to Toledo won’t do much good when you want to go to San Francisco. Strategy and leadership both have some dos and don’ts, but they’re not cookie-cutter elements.

You’d never take that trip without your headlights on, nor would you do it without looking out the windshield. Yet many businesses try to navigate the road ahead by looking in the rear view mirror, and some haven’t turned on the lights!

The fact that you cannot see around all the corners doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You’ll never see all the competitive threats, substitute products or environmental changes that are down the road, but if you’re diligent, you’ll see many. If you don’t turn on the lights, you’ll be lucky to see the ones right in front of you.

Many years ago when I first started flying, I had an instructor who insisted that if you lost your engine at night and had to land in a big black area, you should turn off your landing lights so that you wouldn’t be quite so frightened about what you were going to hit. I never bought that.

Many business executives think you can turn on the lights once a year, usually in the fourth quarter, and get a good look into the next year from that one brief, illuminating event. Try that in a car and see how far you get before you go “thud”! Looking at the road ahead isn’t something you can do in snapshot fashion unless you’re driving very slowly. The faster you move, the brighter your lights must be.

What processes do you have in place to anticipate the opportunities and threats down the road?

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at 303-527-0417 or [email protected].

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