It’s smart business to walk softly and carry a big stick

The question is which end of the stick to use

Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the 26th president of the United States (1901 to 1909) and organizer of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, provided timeless common-sense wisdom with his famous quotes, like the one used in this column’s headline, which I paraphrased a bit.

This metaphoric advice can mean many things to many people, but for businesses, the essence is to know when to remain silent, when to spar and when to strike. In order to prevail, it is equally important to understand the power of two key, but vastly different, forms of strength: passive and active.

Translating this concept, from poetry, philosophy and even the Bible to business, we learn that passive strength provides organizations the ability to endure troubles that can come out of nowhere without warning. It could be a natural or man-made disaster that devastates a plant, a huge lawsuit, a public relations nightmare or a radical change in pricing that can destroy the bottom line for a given quarter or year. With passive strength, businesses can stay afloat to fight another day and continue executing initiatives without cutting and running.

Active strength supplies companies the dexterous skills to drive objectives to grow rapidly, launch new products or services, and do something before competitors can do it to them. Historically, first entries in the marketplace are the ones that prevail and excel as others play catch-up and replicate what the already entrenched players introduced.

Think of these strengths as assets on the balance sheet to be deployed when needed most. But like every asset, they must be guarded and used judiciously. Throwing good money after bad and depleting the limited reservoir of active strength to achieve something that is either not worth accomplishing or not accomplishable can doom an organization to perpetual mediocrity. Having rigorous fact-based checks and balances to minimize the downside is always needed to avoid squandering resources necessary to reach the finish line.

Think of all this as carrying a big stick. On one end is a passive shield made of kryptonite to fend off ruin. On the other end is an active laser-powered dart that has the capacity to hit the target and do its job. Some companies mistakenly use the shield end when in fact the dart side, precisely aimed, can quell trouble and even eliminate it before it becomes a threat. Sometimes the stick’s mere presence might prove that “might is right” and stop the opponent from even thinking about an act of aggression.

Remember, the use of any precision instrument, such as the big stick in this column’s example, requires yet a third bevy of strengths. These include a delicate combination of experience, street sense and determination to do the right thing, for the right reasons at the right time. One final caveat: An organization must always be careful of where it points the big stick because, done irresponsibly, a company might poke out its own eye and forever lose sight of its goals.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide.