Life is a Business – Chapter 41

A series of essays on the past, the present, and the future

This will be a somewhat controversial essay, but this discussion is vital if you are to understand how and why species survive by adapting to changing conditions…this includes you, your family, your friends, your coworkers and your companies.

I figured this out at 12 years old while sitting on a stump in a lightning storm, tending to a sow delivering 11 piglets as I watched. It was the punishment dealt to me by my Father for not keeping the 600 lb. behemoth from walking out of the temporary shelter we were building over her as she labored. Once she started ejecting piglets every two or three minutes, I forgot about the storm raging as I marveled at the miracle happening before my eyes. I learned more about life’s realities in those two hours than at any other time since; natural laws were no longer just theory; they were real to those 11 piglets…especially the one who was supposed to die.

Those piglets would fly out and land in the dirt on their faces with eyes sealed shut, then stand up wobbling and start walking until the umbilical cord was taut, then strain forward until it snapped and they would crash face first into the ground again! Somehow, each one would stand, then blindly walk around the correct side of the sow and go to the most full, rich teat to suckle milk. As each successive piglet arrived at the buffet, he/she challenged the rest for the best food source and the deck was shuffled each time until the strongest one was at front, while the weakest piglet was pushed to the hind teat with little or no milk production. For the good of the species, he/she is supposed to die and never have a chance to breed.  Nature rewards genetic traits critical to the long-term survival of the herd, while minimizing the chances for weak traits to be passed down to future generations.

This phenomenon usually leads to genetically weaker males having the inability to attract females, so the dominant, healthiest males do all the breeding until eventually, they too are displaced by younger, stronger alpha males. What makes us think that this process doesn’t also apply to humans? It absolutely does, with just three key game changers we added to the evolutionary mix – money, power and fame. Let’s be honest ladies…would Donald Trump have had all those supermodel wives, if he had been a working class fellow?  *Note to young men: before you lose your virility, six-pack abs and headful of dark hair, you better learn some skills that make a woman want to keep you around…like cooking, handyman repairs, yard work, etc. I don’t have Donald’s fame and fortune, but guarantee I have better “honey do” skills…I have kept the same world-class woman for nearly 50 years!

Now, back to the story.

As a soft hearted, liberal kid, I intervened and kept placing the runt piglet back into a good feeding position to save him from dying that day. I felt good about myself until I soon saw the results of my messing around with Mother Nature. He survived, but was an outcast and limped around the far edges of the hog lot and I had to bring him food to keep him alive, since the others would not let him eat. I had to take responsibility for him, since I had saved him. He could never become fully functional and was just a drain on the food supply for the rest of the group. I helped one and hurt ten…

The moral to this story is that, in our family and business lives, we tend to feel sorry for the weak ones and prop them up at the expense of giving our attention and resources to the strong ones who can grow…we enable and subsidize mediocrity at all levels of society. Let me make it clear: I still champion the underdog and nurture the weak ones, but have come to understand that leaders must ultimately make tough decisions for the good of the herd and ensure its ability to survive the next winter…that’s life. If you cannot or will not make tough decisions, you should not ever lead-you might get them all killed! If you don’t believe it, ask any combat veteran.

I paraphrase Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric:

“Liberate the weakest 10% of your vendors, customers & employees each year so they can find the place they fit into this world…any delay only hurts them more by keeping them from finding their successful role.”

If it helps you feel better, I also find it hard to release someone from the team. Personnel changes, restructuring, layoffs, terminations, demotions, conflict resolution and strategic decisions are where management careers are made or broken. These are the tough days that “separate the management sheep from the goats”. You have to develop the mentality of a professional football team coach and general manager…”it’s not personal…you’ve been great, but we need a new quarterback to move the team forward”. They teach all pro athletes to expect this from day one, but in business, we often fail to link performance with job security. Business and government are the only entities in nature that say just being present for a long time secures your future welfare. Prepare your children and grandchildren for some harsh realities when the system collapses under its own weight and we once again have to fend for ourselves. Natural Law may be temporarily denied, but over the long arc of history, it holds true, even for us.

Face reality, be honest and fair with people, work hard to save all you can, but at the end of the day, be faithful to the long term success of the enterprise, if you seek a leadership role.

The “other 10” are counting on you.

By Bill Hewgley