By Tim Hayes
During a coffee shop conversation with a young student from my college alma mater the other day, I heard him say something that made me pause a second.
“I think if you’re a decent person who works hard, you’ll do pretty well,” he said.
It gave me pause not because I didn’t agree with the sentiment, but that such a piece of wisdom had been arrived at already by a twenty-something college student. Maybe it shouldn’t have hit me the way it did. Maybe I should give young people more credit for exhibiting refreshing displays of common sense, but there you are.
I might add one more thought to my young friend’s observation, though. Being a decent person? Definitely. Working hard? Always. But there’s more to it than those ideals, important as they may be. And most people don’t acquire this last trait until life has smacked them around a bit.
What do I mean? Patience. Strategic patience. Hanging back while others scream and point and argue and criticize and insist that their ideas must be adopted, to the exclusion of all others.
History is chock full of stories proving the absolute necessity of strategic patience. Think of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. As evidence of offensive Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba – aimed at targets up and down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. – mounted, Kennedy formed a special committee of advisors to fashion a response. Over the next few days, deliberations inside the White House turned into heated arguments as the military leaders insisted on an all-out bombing campaign to wipe out the installations, while others said diplomacy and building wide-ranging global coalitions represented the only sane way out of the dilemma.
All the while, Kennedy sat and listened, scribbling notes to himself, even leaving the team alone for hours to continue thrashing through the crisis for answers. What was the president doing? Gathering information. Weighing options. Remaining non-committal. Letting his team work it out alone without the pressure of worrying about what he might think. Thinking the challenge through. Using the quiet to reason things out. Exercising strategic patience.
In the end, the crisis was averted when a U.S. naval quarantine of Cuba held firm, the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles, and the world could again exhale, safe from the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent “Team of Rivals” book – of which I’m only halfway through at this point – already has provided numerous examples of how another famous president used strategic patience in powerful ways.
Abraham Lincoln came to the presidency by one of the most unexpected, dark-horse trajectories in American history. He won the nomination of his party by silently out-thinking and out-hustling his opponents at the convention, being the first to use data analysis and identifying voting patterns – tools still used today. His election came about the same way.
Within weeks of his inauguration, a group of southern states seceded from the Union and the Civil War had begun. In the early months of the conflict, Lincoln had to deal with belligerent and defiant generals, public perceptions of the Union army’s lack of progress, even saboteurs from within his own cabinet. Yet in each scenario, as advisors, spouses, friends, and others criticized him and demanded immediate action, Lincoln remained steady. Thinking, strategizing, anticipating actions and reactions before they occurred.
And, as Goodwin’s book proves over and over, this approach nearly always worked. In fact, the subtitle of the novel is “The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and for just this reason.
Of course, practicing strategic patience takes real internal fortitude, discipline, a will that can withstand withering opposition, slander, even insults. Not everyone can take it or sustain it. To stand one’s ground, holding out until sufficient facts have been gathered, seeking out opposing opinions and submitting your own assumptions against them honestly – and only after carefully weighing all of the variables, making a decision? That’s incredibly tough.
But it’s also the definition of leadership. Because everyone knows that the decision came not by impulse, not by what polling results say is popular, not by whims or guesses or prejudices, but by careful, respectful, deliberate thought.
As we move forward into the vast array of problems, issues, challenges, and opportunities before us as a nation, let’s pray that decisions get made using this difficult, yet time-worn, time-tested, and time-honored practice of strategic patience.
Hell, it worked for JFK and Honest Abe. We can hope it works for us in 2019 and beyond, right?
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes