Recession, globalization, instantaneous capital flows and talent wars have taken a toll on even the hardiest CEO. Management is difficult, and leadership seems all but impossible. The world of business is dog-eat-dog. Why not raise the stakes a little? You can, if you look to the past for lessons in leadership today. In search of excellence, your guide should be the Donner Party.
Although remembered as an ill-fated exercise in travel management, known today chiefly for its failures in human-resources utilization, the mission was actually a superb example of leading through a crisis. Indeed, the 1846 expedition was the harbinger of today's modern business organization, ruthlessly divided between losers who couldn't cut it, and winners who relished the chance to sink their teeth into the toughest challenges.
From the Donner Party's belatedly acknowledged success in braving the Sierra Nevadas, today's captains of industry can glean enduring rules for turning catastrophe into opportunity. Consider how the Donners would have handled today's most pressing business tests.
Strategy case scenario: Your team has put a stake in the ground around a straw man proposal to optimize a business-unit strategy to steal crucial share from a dominant competitor. The rival division president counters by lowering the price point on his core product below a long-term sustainable level, which risks your group's short-term position in the middle market. What should you do?
CEO response: Eat him.
Supply-chain management case scenario: Few companies equal yours in managing the extended enterprise. You have clear visibility downstream and upstream. Suppliers have mastered your just-in-time delivery needs, and customers have willingly paid a premium for the product customization you have been able to offer-until today, when your largest client forwarded a new contract with a preferential-pricing demand. Your reaction?
CEO response: Definitely eat him.
HR case scenario: Department managers and employees are resisting your decision to introduce a Six Sigma program in headquarters.
CEO response: Eat them immediately.
Marketing case scenario: You operate a midsize division of a diversified consumer-products conglomerate. Heretofore you have had full control over decisions relating to advertising creative, planning and media buying. To achieve efficiencies, the global core has consolidated all marketing communications with a multinational agency network. Your unit's new account team wants to change the TV commercials and print ads that have built your market share incrementally year over year, and is subtly threatening to go over your head if you disagree. You ...
CEO response: Should probably eat them, but not until looking at storyboards.
Although largely ignored by management gurus, the Donner Party reminds us it's possible to slice through the most difficult problems. It's a worthy lesson for our recessionary era, when even the best of historic allies, like Ford and Firestone, are cannibalizing each other in the battle for mindshare. Follow the Donner Party's example, and you, too, can be a Buffet, instead of a buffet.
Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.