I'll not forget the spring of 2002, which is when the effects of 9/11 finally hit my painting firm, T. L. Hart, Inc. Like most other companies the world had been a good place to do business in; Michigan had been booming during the 90's along with the rest of the country. And we had all built business models on what had become the norm. That all changed for this company that first and second quarter - here we were with an organization fitted to large amounts of projects, with little to no work. It was during an advisory board meeting when one of the members said, "just do something, start something; just get moving." It didn’t matter what it was, and it didn’t matter if what we did endured. All that was important was for us to get something going, get something in motion.
His advice proved to be absolutely correct. In May, closing the company's doors was a serious consideration. By the end of December, however, we had realized our second highest sales year ever, and we ended the period in the black.
I had been studying John Maxwell's The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership during that period. Maxwell is arguably America's leading authority on the topic of leadership, with multiple books, DVD's and audio versions of his various seminar presentations. In this book Maxwell presents what he believes and others agree are twenty-one laws that apply to everyone at all times without exception. One of them is the Law of Momentum.
The Law of Momentum (or, the Big Mo) says this: there has to be forward progress - some movement, and that's the leader's responsibility. In some way, shape, or form things have to get moving. That's why small victories are important, because with each success you build momentum that helps move the organization further.
“It's hard to steer a parked car,” Maxwell point out, "but when you have momentum on your side, the future looks bright, obstacles appear small, and trouble seems temporary." That’s why momentum is a leader’s best friend.
It reminds me of what Jim Collins writes about in his bestselling book, Good to Great. He talks about a flywheel, which at first is hard to get going. It takes a lot of effort initially. But then you gain momentum, and eventually it's as if it has a life of its own - it is literally flying, round and round, at high speeds. At this stage it requires little exertion to keep it going, and so much can be accomplished.
One vivid example Maxwell provides comes from his video presentation of these twelve laws, and involves a locomotive. At 55 miles per hour the train can break through a steel-reinforced concrete barrier six feet thick – with hardly anyone noticing. But when in a stopped position, a single concrete block placed against its drive wheel is enough to keep it from moving forward. That’s why you have to get and stay moving if you are to reap the benefits of this law.
How to use this law to your advantage? First of all, you have to understand its value. If you are like me, you’ve had an experience that demonstrates its power. Any forward movement – in any area or endeavor of life – is enough to provide the impetus to get you headed in the right direction. You have to understand just how important momentum is.
Secondly, you’ve got to figure out what are the motivating factors in your life or organization. For me in my company, it was the threat of fiscal failure. But maybe it’s the need to get physically fit, or financially stable. Whatever the circumstances, some sort of forward movement is critical to success.
The next step is to get rid of things that will prevent your gaining momentum. In some cases it may be apathy on the part of the leader, or people in the organization that are content with the status quo. To get things going however, the block in the front of the wheel of your corporate or personal locomotive has to go. You have got to remove the de-motivating factors.
Finally, you do what is right whether you feel like it or not. This is what Maxwell calls “character leadership.” You recognize the need to win, but you know you can’t win unless and until you do something. So regardless of the situation, you act. You get things going, and you recognize and honor others who do the same.
I am intrigued by the statement, “leaders are momentum-makers; managers solve problems.” I have often been party to the latter. Too frequently I have fretted about the circumstances, seeking to analyze the state of things, trying to come up with procedural or systemic solutions. The real problem, however, is to just get busy doing what you’re supposed to be doing – in my case, selling, getting projects started. I have found that once things get going, problems have a way of taking care of themselves; it is amazing how many problems go away when you’re moving forward.
I find it amazing what momentum does for you. From the vantage point of outsiders, if you are busy as a company, it is no matter whether you are making money or not – they think you are. If they’re a vendor, they are pushing product through your organization at a fast pace, and they are enjoying the company’s momentum. That’s because, as Maxwell teaches, momentum is the “great exaggerator.” It makes you look better than you really are – and it makes your people look better than they are. Conversely, if you are stopped in place with little to nothing going, the lack of momentum makes you and your people look worse than you are.
As an aspiring leader, there may be perhaps nothing more important thing you can do but to put something in motion. In my company, the things that de-motivate people the most is a lack of work and the feeling of inactivity as a company. So I have come to learn that the best thing I can do at times is just to get some work in the door – any work, at any price. I know this isn’t the profitable thing to do, but in a sense it is; it gets the blood of the organization moving. It makes everyone feel better about themselves and the company. And you see things begin to improve. Why? Because you’re gaining momentum!
There is so much truth in all this - both for small painting contractors like T. L. Hart, Inc., and for large organizations (like General Motors) and governmental entities (State of Michigan). Just get something going. Get pointed in the right direction, put forth all the effort you can muster, and get the ball rolling. That's the 'Big Mo' - the Law of Momentum.