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Why Brand Strategy (Any Strategy) Is Painful

Wandering Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna arcuata) 
Photo by Lip Kee via Flickr

"Most people only have faith when G-d answers their prayers."

 You have to believe even when the door slams shut in your face.

Joel Osteen's sermon this week (June 10, "The G-d Who Closes Doors") was all about believing, even when you don't get what you (think you) wanted.

The topic of faith is a difficult one for me.

How could G-d let the Holocaust and other atrocities happen? Everyone can think of something that's occurred that seems to make no sense. That seems to be G-d's fault.

Osteen's point was that we need to recognize a power larger than ourselves. A power that knows more. There's a bigger plan that our limited minds can't fully grasp.

Actually it's sort of silly when you think about it.

Here we are, little ants compared with the Omnipotent and we imagine that we are cognitively on the same playing field. No way.

Unable to accept a closed door, we sometimes struggle vainly to force ourselves through. And in the process bring tragedy upon ourselves.

I was watching a documentary about Hasidic Jews, "A Life Apart." In the documentary people talked about being grateful to the Rebbe (their rabbi) for helping them after World War II.

The Rebbe, they said, gave them marriage partners, jobs, places to live. His guidance helped educate their children. One woman explained that her family makes every decision according to what the Rebbe says. 

(Probably not coincidentally, a woman from a completely different Hasidic sect said that she constantly felt guilty for not agreeing with everything her parents said, or following their dictates.)

The only problem is that the same Rebbes told Eastern European Jews not to come to the United States before the war. They were worried that American culture would lead to assimilation, as was actually already happening in Europe. As had happened over and over throughout the centuries.

So the Hasidim stayed in Eastern Europe and according to the documentary, 80% were slaughtered by the Nazis.

I look back at that and it tears me up. It's bad enough to look around and ask, "How could the world turn its back?" (Which actually occurred)

It's worse to have to ask, "Why didn't the Jews pay attention to the closed door that was Eastern Europe at that time? Why didn't they leave?"

My father in law said to me, "You have to believe that G-d is there wherever you are."

But the people didn't believe that. Because they were told.

So the vast majority were killed, and then turned around and slavishly followed the very people who could have led them away from the concentration camps.

It's so easy isn't it, to point fingers at the other guy. But in real life it is so difficult. Every day you're confronted with a choice. If I had to choose between my faith and my life, I would choose my faith. I would die for it.

But then again, I would have to question whether the "doors" being presented to me as options really are that extreme.

It is very possible that Eastern European Jewry could have left and settled somewhere else, and that their ranks would not have shrunken any more than is to be expected when you impose a high standard of observance on the masses.

This is the trouble that average people have with strategy. It's more complicated than Osteen posits, but it starts the same way:

* Our attitude is generally, "I want what I want." It is not relevant to us whether our want makes sense or not. Mostly we are led by an inner drive that we cannot understand. (I would even argue that most people choose a religious path based on their personal psychology - without even knowing it - and then justify to themselves later why their personal choices are somehow "right.") Strategy means thinking rationally first, then deciding on a course of action - the exact opposite. It means saying "no" to your infantile self so that your adult self can achieve something. And accepting that there are times when G-d has made the decision for you.

* No matter how much we achieve, we want more and more all the time. In America, more = better. Output = metrics. And quantity = quality. The more money you make, the more products you sell, the more diversified your portfolio, the more successful you are. The more honors on your resume, the more social networks you've joined, the more Twitter followers you have, the higher your Klout score, the more you've arrived. Strategy means narrowing your focus to achieve excellence at a core competency. Some of the best businesses I know have never come near a social network, nor will they ever do so, and they're doing just fine.

* Americans strive to keep all possibilities open at all times. We are a 24/7/365 culture where we expect to be able to buy whatever we want, whenever we want it. Our children avoid marriage because they don't want to commit and then be sorry later - after all they can keep shopping for the perfect candidate at, right? We fall for diet scams that tell us we can eat whatever we want and still drop 50 pounds. We change jobs hoping that things will magically be different elsewhere, or we move 500 miles away - and nothing much is different. And then we cry a river later. The truth is that you can't have everything you want, every minute you want it, and still forge a path forward. Strategy means you have to choose, and be contented with your choice even though there are some bumps in the road.

Osteen often uses his sermons to reassure people that there is something better down the path, if only they will have faith. He says, in effect, "When one door closes, another opens."

But we all know that is not always true. There are many people out there who will never get over their disease or disability, who will never emerge from the criminals who have a hold over their lives.

Just like trying to have everything is not a strategy, believing blindly in a brighter future is not a strategy either.

Again, looking backward at the Holocaust or any avoidable tragedy - the question is, what could we have done to avoid it? The real test of strategy involves five things:

1. Did you understand the options correctly in the first place?

2. Did you make a reasoned choice from between those options, understanding that success is inevitably partial and never includes "everything?"

3. Did you commit to a course of action fully, in your mind?

4. Did you see that commitment through in action?

5. Finally, and most importantly, did you feel pain? Because all real strategies involve a certain amount of loss, grieving and letting go.

In the end it is true that G-d has a plan. But it's also true that we were put here for a reason - not to know that plan, and to try and figure things out anyway.

It's better to move forward with a strategy than to blindly spin your wheels - or worse yet, curse G-d for your own faulty reasoning.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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