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3 Powerful Leadership Sayings from Jim Barksdale: How to Build Culture with Language.

Certain sayings, or phrases, used at the right time, can be very powerful! Used consistently, they will even become part of an organization’s culture and brand – communicating important ideas quickly.  Following are three sayings leaders find valuable, all attributed to one person – Jim Barksdale. This follows a previous post where I shared helpful sayings from Ross Perot.

Some reading this will have worked for Mr. Barksdale or heard him speak and may be using these already. Mr. Barksdale’s resume includes CEO of ATT Wireless, CIO and COO of FedEx, Co-Founder of Netscape, started at IBM, currently President of his philanthropic investment foundation Barksdale Management. He is known for his “Barksdaleisms.”

1 – “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.”

What it means: Every company or organization has a main driver of profit or growth, their mission in the world. Too often we can lose our way and spend wasted effort on something that is not our “main thing.”

When to Use it: As a product developer, I used this to help my team avoid adding features which are not key to our strategy and value prop. When someone wants to chase the newest shining object, this is the question to ask: “Will it keep the main thing the main thing”?

Watch Out For: The limit to this idea is that sometimes our “main thing” – at least as we have done it in the past – is no longer valid. History is ripe with failed companies who were not able to make changes until it was too late (see Tower Records or Blockbuster Video for examples).

2 – “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.”

See also: “Quit spitting on the handle and get to hoeing.”

What it means: We can spend a lot of time and energy on internal issues, but without customers and (eventually) profits, we will not have a viable business.

When to Use it: As a salesperson and sales manager, I would use this to empower the sales organization, and as product developer, this phrase encourages partnering more closely with sales. When this is done well, I have closed sales of products not even complete yet. Having a client before the product is done is a good indicator you are on the right track!

Watch Out For: One could just as easily say “nothing happens until somebody builds something.” The solution is a good feedback loop between Engineering, Product Development and Sales, so the partnership is tight, the relationships are strong, and decision-making is clear.

3 – “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, it is the terrain which determines who wins.” 

See also: “Every battle is won or lost before it begins.”

What it means: This is a classic, but not always practiced, part of competitive strategy – one must know why and how you will win (I have seen this called “the right to win”) before the “battle” begins. Innovation is often about finding or creating new terrain to compete on.

When to Use it: When looking to grow a business, look for the essential competitive advantage which maximizes your strengths and makes the competition’s strengths irrelevant. Beating an opponent head on is often the hardest route.

Watch Out For: These types of business strategies are very hard to develop and execute, so pressure to act can cause you to “split the difference” and dilute your strategy to reach consensus.  

Extra Credit:

4 – “Life is simpler when you plow around the stumps.”

– Make life easy, do not get bogged down trying to remove every stump you encounter!

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