May 19, 2014
Column | basic training

Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

Those who succeed in supply chain management tend to have an element of fierceness that helps separate them from the competent, the passionate, and the passionately capable.

By Art van Bodegraven and Kenneth B. Ackerman

Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man, whether they realized it or not, had the capability and passion needed to reach the Emerald City in Oz. But none was, by nature, fierce, and they feared finding ferocity as they passed through the forest. The Cowardly Lion may not have been either all they feared or what they needed, but he was all they had at the moment.

The e-world has been burning up recently, as discussion forums have lit up with intense point/counterpoint barbs about the relative merits of passion, discipline, and competence in our supply chain profession. It's all pretty much anecdotal pamphleteering, but let's face reality—research is, fairly often, the collection of many anecdotes, distilled and summarized.

Some wax eloquent about the necessity and glory of passion in our professional pursuits to transform doing the job into an immensely rewarding and life-changing mission. A grim coterie of doubters, naysayers, and grinches contend that the notion of passion is illusory and transient, and that the real magic lies within the discipline of executing the basics, the blocking and tackling that result in delivering the goods to customers.

Much has been made of the potential for passion to be mere cheerleading; worse, an artificial enthusiasm; or still worse, detrimental by having no substance (competence or discipline) behind it.

So, proponents, especially of the plodding discipline and competence camp, like to suggest that success can come from bringing on demonstrated capability and eschewing flash and flair. Others might think that passion can overcome mere details of knowing how to do the job.

Our decision, given a choice between Candidate A and Candidate B in hiring for the future, is to not choose, but to wait for the right combination of passion and capability before hiring. We will admit that operations can be effective, even good, in the hands of disciplined competence. We also contend that passion is the secret sauce that can take good to great.

And great is what separates leaders from laggards. Will greatness always win? No. Will good always fail? Seldom. But what are the risks of being merely good in a world ruled by greatness, and what are the benefits of achieving corporate and competitive greatness?

The more we thought about it, though, the more we realized that there is another ingredient in this mulligatawny—ferocity. Perhaps Dorothy's Lion was not quite up to expectations, but he did come through at the end and help his team dispatch the witch.

Those who succeed, in many fields and certainly in supply chain management, tend to have an element of fierceness that helps separate them from the competent, the passionate, and the passionately capable.

We know an executive who runs the North American supply chain for a leading specialty products company in an extraordinarily competitive field. She is completely self-taught and has risen through the functional ranks based on a single-minded commitment to master each new challenge.

Ferocity is a hallmark of her every effort—and success, whether in business, in fundraising, or in triathlons. Some days, it is frightening, not on a personal level but to see the determination and commitment up close, and momentarily feel some empathy for those who need to keep up.

Then, consider the late Steve Jobs. Passionate, almost beyond reason. Capable, to be sure, and aggressive about surrounding himself with those capable on other facets of the Apple business.

Fun to work with? Maybe for capable people who shared his visions and passion. A cheerleader? Are you serious? Fierce, unyielding, and unbending? Oh, yeah, for sure.

Did he make mistakes? Did Apple ever stumble? Of course; all that is well documented. But ferocity unleashed the passion and vision, the competence and capability, that propelled the enterprise to heights undreamed of in the world outside the Apple orbit.

Could it be that this prized attribute is simply passion with a vengeance, rah-rah run amok? Is it possible that the merely competent use fierceness as a way to compensate, to do more than they might based on routine execution alone?

We think not. Vengeance means taking one's eye off the ball to pursue a secondary, perhaps unrelated, purpose. Doing the same thing over and over in the hope that it will be better, or will work, or will break through if we simply rinse and repeat, only more vigorously. The focused individual, both passionate and disciplined, will not take eyes off the prize. The competent and disciplined is not so much motivated to get better as to get good, on a consistent basis.

By the way, people with the fierce gene are not twisted or anti-social. They can be funny, be delightful to be with, shift gears, and lead lives that are full in all the right human dimensions. It's just that, when it comes to career or other competitive arenas, they can focus and fire the afterburners to elevate where their other attributes can take them.

All over, whether in business, politics, the arts, religion, and so on. And throughout the universe of supply chain management. Think of the people you know in the field who are fierce as well as capable and passionate. Examples might include academics, consultants, corporate executives, material handling specialists, association managers—anyone who is a differentiated leader putting competitive distance between him or her self and others.

The fierce ones are everywhere, but there aren't actually very many of them. Those with both passion and competence are also found throughout the supply chain, but they are, frankly, outnumbered by the one-dimensional players who have only one card to play.

About the Authors

Art van Bodegraven
Art van Bodegraven was, among other roles, chief design officer for the DES Leadership Academy. He passed away on June 18, 2017. He will be greatly missed.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven
Kenneth B. Ackerman
Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of The Ackerman Company, can be reached at (614) 488-3165.

More articles by Kenneth B. Ackerman

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