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Short-term Thinking, Seven Fat Cows and Giving Yourself Permission to Suck

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

There’s a story in the Bible about Jacob’s dream. He dreamt about 7 fat cows and 7 thin cows. This was a metaphor for the fact that, in Egypt, things were good at the time. But the wheel was bound to turn, and a time of hardship was round the corner (as it always is). If you didn’t fill up your stores with grain, you were in for a tough time. Most of us know the rest – Pharaoh followed his advice, stocked up, and when the drought came, they were good. And Jacob’s star continued to rise. In the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, they did a great Elvis impersonation around this story!


Now, this makes sense right? Think long-term. Don’t get sucked into the complacency of the present. Tuck away something for a rainy day. And yet, how easily do we get distracted? I get a raise! Let me upgrade my car! I had a great year in the business. Let me give everyone a massive bonus and a huge increase! Sales are great, I don’t need to spend money on any marketing this year. I have a great team, I don’t need to focus on recruitment right now.

Etc etc…

Stephen Covey has this great construct in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People of Beginning with the End in Mind (Habit 2). And then, equally importantly, Putting First Things First (Habit 3). That’s where you know where you are going, and you prioritize the things that will get you there. Even if the world wants something different from you. Even if it’s tempting to take your foot off the pedal, your eyes off the prize.

Let me give you some examples, good and bad:

MY COMPANY BONUSES

That time I gave everyone a 14th cheque because we had an insanely good year. Only problem: A month later, the taps turned off in Cape Town, Day Zero became real, and for the first time in a decade, the business had negative growth. Result? No bonuses come yearend. But try to explain that to the team…

What did I do? I immediately decided to follow a more transparent compensation model where everyone understood the game. We did well, they did well. We struggled, and bonuses would also be affected.

THE SPRINGBOKS SQUAD PLAN

What has separated Rassie from coaches that came before was the willingness to lose games. Famous examples include our loss to New Zealand at Ellis Park last year (the “Joseph Dweba” experiment), and our loss to New Zealand this year in New Zealand (the rusty A-team gambit). We could have won both games. At Ellis Park, we could have stayed with Marx as hooker after Bongi got injured. But then we wouldn’t have known that Dweba wasn’t ready for the big stage, and bringing in Deon Fourie as cover proved an inspiring move that helped win the Cup. Also, playing two teams on consecutive weeks mitigated travel fatigue – but we still got hammered in Auckland, the team there looking decidedly rusty. Yet sparing the players an overload of travel in a World Cup year proved critical in building up capability and fitness, and it led to the final prize.

Most coaches speak from the same song sheet. It’s a four-year cycle, judge us on the World Cup results. But Rudolf Strauli, Harry Viljoen, and Heyneke Meyer are famous examples of coaches who started with bright ideas but folded to FOPO (Fear of People’s Opinions) when the pressure got too much. Not so for the Rassie/Jacques bandwagon. Kudos for staying the course, guys.

NICK FALDO’S SWING OVERHAUL

When I started playing golf in the early 90s, Nick Faldo was no 1 in the world. And he was, and is, one of a very small group of players to have that honour, and win a bunch of Major championships along the way.

And therein is the lesson. Faldo, in the mid-80s, was a great golfer. But he couldn’t bring the true measure of greatness, the majors, home. His swing was widely admired but failed at crucial moments. So he rebuilt it. Painfully. Slowly. It took him two years of awful golf to do what needed to be done. But when he had overhauled his technique, no one could touch him.

How often do we give ourselves permission to suck? To experiment, to iterate, to push our boundaries? I mean, if you never fail, are you trying hard enough? Malcolm Gladwell calls it the 10,000-hour rule: The amount of time you need to invest to truly be an expert. But not even the Beatles started off as rock stars. As long as you keep your eye on the prize, and know what your Wildly Important Goal is, you can stay the course along the way, even if the results don’t come immediately.

ARRIE VAN DER MERWE’S CYCLE ADVICE

My old partner, who introduced me to cycling, had this titbit that has stayed with me for the rest of my life: “When you’re feeling super strong and you want to go faster… Don’t.”

It’s great advice, hey. When we’re on top and bulletproof, we tend to throw caution to the wind and go harder. That’s when you make unnecessarily big bets, that’s when you throw resources at things that won’t get you over the finish line, that’s when you find yourself alone and isolated without support facing a massive headwind. Hang back, park your adrenaline, and stick with the game plan.

I’ve seen this many times. In tourism, particularly, companies do extremely well and then expand aggressively. Often too quickly. Then a global pandemic or crisis hits, and they find themselves short on cash and long on problems.

The antitode to short-term thinking, that third letter in my EISH acronym, is having a clear long-term plan. And breaking down that plan into even clearer short-term goals that align with that plan. More on that next week, when we tackle the last core leadership failure… Half-measures.


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