I’ve been reflecting recently on the topic of commitment and the all-encompassing and all-consuming job of Chief Executive Officer and two relevant truths have emerged: the incumbent first of all must know ‘the buck stops here’ when it comes to ultimate accountability for success or failure, and secondly must recognize its further corollary, that there is never any difficult issue about which you may say ‘that’s not my job.’ While it is a role for which commitment is unquestionably required, it is nonetheless quite fair and proper to ask the question: what do we mean by commitment? What are you signing up for when you commit? What do you have to give and what do you get in return?
The word has a range of meanings in common parlance. When one speaks of one’s ‘commitments,’ it carries the connotation of obligation, of one’s duties. Further, when you hear a chief executive say that she is committed to something, a particular plan of action, the term connotes a considered decision, carefully and voluntarily made. On the other hand, you hear that someone was committed to an institution – ‘after his arrest, he was committed to Bellevue Hospital for observation’ – and it conveys a considered decision with a twist: involuntarily made, if you will, a decision you would oppose to if you could.
Commitment underlies the conversation with all my CEO clients as an unspoken premise and it has a dual edge. On one side, it’s clear that this job requires total commitment, all that I can imagine, so what all must I do to best fulfill my obligation? But on the other side there is frequently an underlying hesitancy, a reluctance even. ‘Given that total commitment is required,’ the inner voice says, ‘and I am just one human being, can I do all that is required?’ Asking the question ‘can I commit to all this much?’ can tempt one to shorten the ambitions to fit the will, to shrink the scope of endeavor instead of calling on the reserves of power.
The tension between these two, the dichotomy of commitment, never goes away. What CEO isn’t asking herself right now, as the new business year is just beginning, whether the targets set for 2018 are so high that they can’t be achieved by yearend? Or so low that competitors will gain advantage in the next twelve months? The doubt about getting the balance right is perpetual and weighs heavily on the mind. How much should I commit to? especially since I will be committing many others to the same. What can serve as my guide in such decisions?
It is in this context that a quote I’d seen some years ago from Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray on the topic came to mind, because it adds a third something to the conversation: the benefits that accrue to those who commit. I recalled only the crucial bit: ‘that the moment one commits oneself, then Providence moves too.’ Intriguing, no? the notion that an invisible hand somehow attends one’s efforts if one truly commits.
Who was this man, and what led to his saying something so audacious about commitment? Mountaineers deal in absolutes; one false step and you die. Does he present evidence to back up his claim?
I knew about Adam Smith and the invisible hand of market forces he wrote about in The Wealth of Nations, but somehow, I didn’t think Murray was talking about the same thing!
Searching it out has led me on quite a journey, as the internet shows various versions of the quote and the source book itself is out-of-print, but I found it the old-fashioned way – not on Amazon but in the quiet stacks of a private library, the Boston Athenaeum.
New Zealander Edmund Hilary is rightly celebrated as the first in 1953 to climb Everest, , but before the world’s tallest mountain was ever attempted, the ideal approach vexed the world’s top climbers for many years. It was Scotsman Murray’s scouting expedition in 1950 that proved the best approach was from the south, that the Khumbu Icefall guarding the base of the most promising vertical route up the South Face could be safely crossed with proper laddering to span its network of crevasses.
The Scottish Himalayan Expedition 1950 is the story of Murray and team’s four-month sojourn in the high mountains. It is a sensitively told story that stands up well to accounts of similar high-mountain journeys by Matthiessen, Thubrun and Landsberg. The best histories give their readers the immediacy of events as they unfold, sprinkled with understandings only arrived at later, and Murray’s is such a one. His first chapter ‘Birth Pangs’ begins with a phone invitation from a fellow mountaineer. Six pages into the narrative, on the heels of his note that nothing had yet been done to prepare and that consequently the expedition was still very much in the air, we are treated to a discovery about commitment that has the aging of a fine wine.
“But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were half-way out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money—booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred [italics added]. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
What a concept: once you truly commit to something, good things will inevitably follow! But the skeptic in me wants evidence, to know what I can count on, and indeed, in the succeeding pages, Murray and team’s experience is evidence that bold steps are regularly accompanied by good fortune:
- The team commits irrevocably to the voyage, and twelve hours before the ship is to sail, the expedition’s 27 crates of food and supplies have not arrived; a final frantic inspection reveals them safely deposited in the ship’s hold
- A critical visa for transit between parts of the interior has not been granted before departure is required from their Indian embarkation point; a chance meeting with a Swiss national residing there uncovers his close friendship with a deputy commissioner, who is promptly telegrammed to safeguard passage
- Their attempt on a final peak, Panch Chuli, is halted by a sheer unclimbable summit face beneath which they camp for two sunny days enjoyment of the view; the warmth unleashes regular nightly avalanches that destroy sleep and appetite, but miraculously bypass the campsite
Such good fortune becomes so dependable in Murray’s view that he observes at one point ‘…as usual everything was working out for the best …And continued to do so…All was made plain before us.’
So, what can we non-mountaineers take from this assertion about commitment? Is there something there for ordinary mortals attempting more normal feats of leadership?
Like most such imponderables, the answer lies within the individual. Experience is what you make of it, after all, and Murray’s faith in the beneficence of Providence was born of surviving three years’ experience as a prisoner of the Germans in WWII, and numerous brushes with disaster as a mountaineer both before and after the war.
More fundamentally, his exploits in the wilderness provided occasions for encounters he could explain no other way than such faith in a positive outcome. Down climbing on the 22,000+ foot Hanuman, a large block collapses under the unroped Murray…
The fall had occurred far too quickly to allow me to see the top of that corner. Like the stone I had dropped like a plummet. The thrusting out of my elbows was done in a flash faster than thought; it was no conscious work of mine, based on no record of the eye or brain. My limited self, the whole sensuous apparatus, had been taken over by the true or inner self for an instant of extreme urgency. That is how it felt. And that is how it was. My whole being was tingling with the after-effect of gladness. And ‘What is gladness without gratitude, and where is gratitude without a God?’ And so I gave thanks.
He confirms from this incident a beneficent God, where others might find proof of their innate capability. Regardless of which interpretation one chooses, it is the irreversible commitment, the boldness Goethe writes about, that is the core choice to make. Murray affirms his faith that this choice will be rewarded.
And who is to say that faith is not the answer? Faith in God; faith in self. The similarity is perhaps more important than the difference. Worth pondering …
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org