Where Leaders Fail, Part One: More Faster

Probably the most common mistake I’ve seen leaders make under pressure is a dysfunction I call “More Faster” syndrome. To understand what I mean by this, picture a man on a treadmill. He’s running his poor little heart out, but he never seems to get anywhere. All that work and he’s not making any progress! He’s gotta do something to change the view or he’s going to go nuts.

Now, from the outside looking in, it’s clear what he needs to do — get off the treadmill. As long as he’s on the treadmill, the view’s never gonna change; it’s the nature of the beast. However, when you’re on the treadmill, it’s easy to lose sight of that common-sense answer. After all, you’re moving your legs, right? And moving your legs is a way to get from one place to another, right? So why isn’t he getting to someplace new? He must not be moving his legs enough! If only he could run more, or run faster, eventually he’d have to get somewhere! So he turns the speed on the treadmill up another notch. Then, ten minutes later, he gets frustrated all over again. He’s still not getting anywhere! Must have to run even more, or even faster! So he turns up the treadmill another notch…

Eventually what happens? He falls over dead of a heart attack, and he’s not an inch closer to his goal than he was when he started. That’s the peril of “More Faster” thinking.

“More Faster” thinking is easy to fall into because it fits human nature so well. We’re pattern-seeking creatures; we look in all things for patterns of behavior that produce winning outcomes, and once we find one, we’re very wary of giving it up. After all, it worked before, right? So the natural tendency when it stops working is to redouble our efforts and push harder in the same direction.

The problem is, sometimes external circumstances change, and when that happens our old patterns can become useless, or even counterproductive. When that happens, an effective leader has to be smart enough to recognize that fact early and change her strategy to fit the new circumstances. Like I said above, for most of us that’s a very hard thing to do. We usually need to take a good knock on the head or two before we even consider giving up a way of thinking that worked for us in the past. It’s the rare leader indeed who has the kind of mental alacrity to continually test her presumptions against the facts — and, if they don’t match, discard the presumptions instead of ignoring the facts.

Taken to extremes, “More Faster” can have terrible consequences. Pretty much the entire Vietnam War is an example of More Faster run amok. It became clear early on to anyone who cared to pay attention that the South Vietnamese government was so corrupt and despised by its people that it was doomed to fail eventually, no matter how long it was propped up by foreigners. It was also clear that our armed forces, as they were then organized, just weren’t up to the task of fighting a guerrilla war against foes in civilian clothes who could blend right in with the civilian population.

So, when things like that happen, what do you do? Early on, we had options. We could have pulled out of Vietnam in 1965 or ’66 without too much loss of face on the international stage; or, we could have committed to actually making life better for the South Vietnamese people by stopping our support for their corrupt rulers and organizing free elections — under U.N. auspices, say. (If there had been a vote on whether North and South Vietnam should reunify, odds are majorities on both sides would have voted for union, but that would have given us a convenient excuse to cut our losses and leave Vietnam to the Vietnamese without our other allies thinking we’d leave them in the lurch.)

Faced with military setbacks and the hatred of the populace for the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, though, four U.S. Presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon) fell right into the More Faster trap. Diem’s hated because he’s too repressive? Fine — let’s let some generals blow Diem’s brains out; they will know how to put down popular unrest. (Yeah — with even more repression.) South Vietnamese army can’t win a battle with the Vietcong? Put a few American boys in the line, they’ll show ’em how to fight. (Still losing? Clearly your definition of “few” is too low.) At each junction, America — rather than realizing how the world had changed, how this wasn’t World War Two and couldn’t be won just by sheer weight of firepower — just kept doing more of the same, and doing it faster and faster, hoping each time the speed got ratcheted up that this would be the time it finally got somewhere. The end result was tens of thousands of dead Americans, Lord only knows how many dead Vietnamese, unconstitutional bombing in Cambodia, and riots in American streets. It took that much negative feedback to convince us to get off the treadmill.

What does this mean for us today? It means, keep an eye out on the circumstances that surround you every day. Make sure they are what you think they are. Challenge your assumptions — and keep people around you who aren’t afraid to challenge your assumptions, too. (They’ll be much better at it than you could ever be yourself, because they’re not on the treadmill in the first place.) Don’t be afraid to strike out in new directions early; don’t wait for your heart to seize up. Most of all, remember that Fewer Smarter beats More Faster every time.