Convert business strife into creative energy

  • Thu Jun 28th, 2012 9:16am

By James McCusker Business 101

There is a relationship between conflict and energy.

It is not a relationship that we understand fully, but we know enough about it to recognize its importance. Perhaps the best known quotation about it came from Harry Lime, the character played by Orson Welles in the 1949 movie, “The Third Man.”

“… In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Besides getting the origin of the cuckoo clock wrong — it was German — Harry also underestimated the level of conflict that democracy can stir up. Still, his point comes through with great clarity. There is something in human nature that turns conflict into energy.

Conflict can take many forms. It doesn’t have to resemble cage fighting or coliseum gladiators to produce creative energy. The late historian Eugen Weber noted that one reason why the United States succeeded as a nation where so many revolutions failed was the continuous energy generated by the conflict between its ideals and reality.

Others have expressed another dimension of that same view. What was different about the U.S. was that Americans actually believed the words, ideas and principles in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, and that belief has sustained them through turmoil and adversity.

Entrepreneurs and managers spend a great deal of time trying to inject energy into their organizations. Larger organizations often try to outsource or automate the process by hiring motivational speakers, sending people on team-building expeditions or constructing elaborate reward systems for profit-generating behavior, to little lasting effect.

In smaller businesses, entrepreneurs, CEOs and managers often rely on transmitting their own energy to the others in the organization. This works well enough, but too often becomes an all-consuming, exhausting responsibility that can ruin personal lives and block out other necessary tasks of leadership.

The conflict between ideals and reality can provide a simple and reliable source of energy to businesses and be a real help to those who run them.

Laying out the ideals should start at the top. Even if it’s a one-person business, it’s a good idea to start, as both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution do, by explaining why we are doing this. What is the reason your business was started and for its existence?

Some businesses were set up with high ideals. Most, though, were started simply because someone saw an economic opportunity. After all, that’s what business is about.

The ideals of a business, though, are a description of what you want it to be. That might involve the kind and quality of products you want to make, the service you want to provide, or, as importantly, the customers you want to serve — and why. There are more than 300 million people in this country. A business that wants to serve all of them is going to have very different ideals, and a very different structure, from a business that wants to serve a particular set of customers — a neighborhood, specific industry buyers or an age group, for example.

Don’t bother writing down anything that you don’t believe in without reservation. There is no disease more lethal to organizations than lip service and it is contagious. Workers catch it from you.

If you believe in your company’s ideals, they will become both a road map and a kind of conscience for you and your business that spurs action and encourages do-the-right-thing decisions.

To make sure that the ideals vs. reality competition releases energy instead of creating friction, you will need to think through ways to move your company from where it is to where you want it to be. In the history of the U.S. as a country, for example, the courts and the ballot box have served as the primary means to move the country closer to its ideals.

These institutions aren’t a good fit for a business, but your enterprise does need its own paths for energy to travel so that it is effective in a similar way. Listen to your workers and to your customers and make sure that good ideas are not ignored and forgotten. That will put all that energy to good use and get you closer to your ideal.

Our nation was founded by a remarkable group of people we might accurately call “practical idealists.” It worked for them and for our country. It could work for you.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached at