The Arc

streak of light against dark sky

I have been captivated by Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s rise from irrelevance to the White House was sudden, and rather remarkable in hindsight. Post Presidency, Grant became the first 19th-century American President to tour the world for over two years. After a brief political comeback went up in flames, he devoted his time to Grant & Ward, a brokerage firm he opened with Ferdinand Ward and his son, Buck. As Chernow details in the biography, however, Ward was the 19th-century version of Bernie Madoff using the business as a Ponzi scheme. When the scheme was revealed in 1884, instead of being worth over a million dollars as he thought, President Grant was in actuality only worth about $84.

He had come full circle.

While there is much to learn from Grant’s story —especially around blindly trusting others, something he struggled with throughout the course of his political leadership—the point here is around the arc.

Most leaders, myself included, surmise that their arc will always be up and to the right. This isn’t to say that we are “cocky,” for we realize that some periods might be stagnant, or even have momentary downturns. But overall, we expect the path to be up and to the right: You get promoted, you work hard, you get promoted again, and the cycle goes on until you “retire.”

But this isn’t always the case. In fact, the norm for athletes is to “peak” at some point along their journey, and then come back down. “Father Time” always wins, as they saying goes. So why should we, in business, think we are any different?

Being cognizant of this potential reality, the challenge for us leaders is to remain:

1. Humble. Shouldn’t we be gracious to those who are helping us on the way up the arc? We might need their help on the way back down —President Grant received a $1,000 interest-free loan from one of his soldiers after the Ponzi Scheme was unveiled. Had Grant treated this soldier badly during the war, one can assume such help would not have been available to him when he needed it most

2. Hungry. As any golfer knows, every round is new. In other words, you cannot rest on your laurels. In business, we need to be careful not to fall prey to our hunger waning over time. Are we still willing to do what’s uncomfortable, or change? If not, isn’t it only a matter of time until we start to fade?

2. Smart. We need help. If we foolishly think we can make it on our “own,” we are headed to the other side of the arc because our own efforts are not sustainable.

(“Humble, Hungry, and Smart” comes from Patrick Lencioni’s Ideal Team Player, which continues to be the best book I have read on the subject).

For here lies the other reminder from the Grant biography: all figures of importance made it to the top of their arc with the help of others. In short, they were surrounded by a “team.”

If you and I are to make it there — the top of the arc —it will only be because we have surrounded our self with an extraordinary team.

Let’s always remember that.