What Is Your “20-Mile March?

What Is Your “20-Mile March?

“She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life” – Proverbs 31:12

*Proverbs 31 is a verbal portrait a mother paints for her son the king to help him in his choice of a wife. The woman depicted in this passage embodies the core behavior of fanatical discipline. Every day, day after day, this wife brings her husband good, not harm. The context describes a virtuous woman motivated by her love for God to “march 20-miles” (see below), i.e., to be industrious, frugal, efficient and productive with tremendous consistency. As a result she achieves a truly great enterprise: the perfect wife, worthy of all praise.

The article following describes how through their research Jim Collins and Morten Hansen discovered that the same core behavior endorsed in the ancient Proverbs 31 text is a trait shared by companies and leaders that thrive even in tumultuous times.

To illustrate this trait, in their book, “Great by Choice,” co-authors Collins and Hansen draw on the account of two teams of explorers who in October 1911 set out independently from the Antarctic coast determined to be the first humans to reach the South Pole. The team led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen got there 34 days ahead of Robert Scott’s team. The Amundsen led team then returned to their base camp on the precise day they had planned. Scott and his team died on the way back.

“Good by Choice” answers the question: Why do some companies do well in uncertainty, even chaos, and others don’t? The authors whittled down their initial list of 20,400 companies to seven high-performing cases that they labeled “10X” companies because each beat its industry index by a factor of at least 10.

In their race to the Pole Amundsen and Scott faced the same challenges of impossible weather, terrain, etc. Yet only Amundsen led his team to victory and safety. Collins’ and Hansen’s research indicated that a key core behavior separating these two men also separated the 10X business leaders from their less successful colleagues. You guessed it, fanatical discipline.

So how do we maintain a sense of control in a world that feels increasingly disoriented? “You do what Amundsen led his team to do,” Collins advises. “’You march 20 miles.’”

Amundsen’s strategy for reaching the Pole and returning alive was to march 15 to 20 miles every day. Regardless of whether the conditions were favorable or unfavorable, Amundsen’s expedition marched 20 miles. Scott followed a more irregular pattern. On a good day his team might travel 40 miles. If they faced a blizzard, they waited it out in their tents.

Amundsen’s philosophy required fanatical discipline, pushing ahead in the worst conditions, and, when the sun was shining, exercising self-control by not going too far. Such was Amundsen’s resolve that with the team only 45 miles from the Pole, and things working well, and their reaching the Pole first at risk because they didn’t know where Scott was, instead of pressing on, after 17 miles they rested that day. Why? If they got to the Pole exhausted and a storm hit, they might not survive.

Collins found that 10X companies practiced similar radical restraint. Southwest Airlines, for example, in a notoriously brutal industry demanded of itself a profit every year (their “20-mile march”). In January 2014 the company reported its 41st year of consecutive profitability.

Equally important, in boom times, when their less-successful peers were expanding rapidly, Southwest had the discipline not to risk overstretching their resources and putting their “20-mile march” in jeopardy. In 1996, Southwest opened four cities to their service although more than 100 cities clamored for it.

So as we begin 2015, maybe a good question to ask ourselves would be, “Going forward, what will be my 20-mile march” What are actions that if we determine to be fanatically disciplined about, not as an average, but as consistent, consecutive performance, would make our lives more a truly great enterprise?

Dr. Jim Furr

* In addition to an October 2011“Fortune” article by Jim Collins titled “Great by Choice,” in the writing of this “Pointer” I used a talk of the same title that Collins gave at the 2012 Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit