In the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor,” soon after the U.S. declares war on Japan, President Franklin Roosevelt orders the Joint Chiefs of Staff to strike back by bombing Tokyo. These military leaders offer reason after reason why it can’t be done – the U.S. long range bombers don’t have the necessary range from the nearest U.S. base on Midway Island, Russia won’t let the U.S. launch from Russian territory, short range navy planes only can carry light bomb loads and need to be launched close to Japan, which puts our aircraft carriers at risk, etc. Roosevelt says to them, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done.”
What Roosevelt did was challenge the existing paradigms of his military leaders. He wanted them to be innovative and think out of the box. It took the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare to do so, an individual you would not necessarily expect to come up with a solution to this challenge. He proposed that B-25 bombers carrying extra fuel be launched off of an aircraft carrier that would sail within a distant range of Tokyo, reducing risk to the carrier. After launch, the carrier would turn back, and after the bombing run, the planes would fly to China and land there.
The bombers had only 467 feet of deck to launch off the carrier USS Hornet, something that had never been done before. The planes had to be stripped of everything that was not absolutely critical to the mission in order to reduce their weight, including defensive guns.
This bombing mission over Tokyo is enshrined in history as the Doolittle Raid, named for Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who trained the pilots and led the bombing mission. Even though the bombing mission did little damage to Japan’s military capability, it provided a needed boost to American morale, and at the same time showed the Japanese that they were in reach of American bombers.
As leaders of our organizations, how many times do we hear from employees that something can’t be done? When I am told this, I respond, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Find a way to do it.” I was taught this lesson by my former CEO, who challenged the plant design and operational staffing of a new plant to supply one of our products into a geographic market that was small. There were insufficient revenues and cash flow to achieve a rate of return on the investment needed to justify the plant’s construction.
Due to the CEO’s challenge, we changed the accepted paradigm and through innovative changes in technology, we redesigned the plant to reduce its capital cost and the number of people needed to staff it. The rate of return increased to above the threshold to fund the investment, and we were given approval by the board to build the plant. This new plant design became the model for future plants of its type, and gave us a very significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.
When “something can’t be done,” there is usually a creative path forward that once uncovered, can achieve the result desired, or a similar result that might serve the purpose originally intended. The corporate culture must encourage out-of-the-box thinking and risk-taking for this process to take place. Collaboration among people from different operating units, technical disciplines and business units are sometimes needed to find the path forward, as occurred when the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare came up with the idea on how to bomb Tokyo.
Leaders, whenever you are told something can’t be done, challenge your staff to find a way to do it. To those who are tasked to find that path, think outside the box and challenge existing paradigms. You will be surprised at what you can accomplish.
About the author
Stan Silverman is a speaker, writer and advisor who focuses on helping businesses and organizations cultivate leadership cultures. He currently is a Leadership Catalyst for Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Stan is also Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Drexel University, a lead director on the board of Drummond Scientific and and serves on the board of Ben Franklin Technology Partners. He is the former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Stan can be reached by email or at his website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com.