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December 14, 2017
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Are you "fierce" enough to be successful?

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Those who succeed in supply chain management tend to have an element of fierceness that helps separate them from the competent, the passionate, and the passionately capable.

The e-world has been burning up recently, as discussion forums have lit up with point/counterpoint barbs about the relative merits of passion, discipline, and competence in our supply chain profession. It's all pretty much anecdotal, but let's face reality—research is, fairly often, the collection of many anecdotes, distilled and summarized.

Some commentators wax eloquent about the necessity of passion in our professional pursuits to transform simply doing a job into an immensely rewarding and life-changing mission. A grim coterie of doubters and naysayers contend that the notion of passion is illusory and transient, and that the real magic lies within the discipline of executing the basics, the "blocking and tackling" that result in delivering the goods to customers.

Much has been made of the potential for passion to become mere cheerleading—worse, an artificial enthusiasm, or still worse, detrimental by having no substance (competence or discipline) behind it.

The pitfall of a false choice
So, proponents, especially of the "discipline and competence" camp, like to suggest that success can come from bringing on demonstrated capability and eschewing flash and flair. Others might think that passion can overcome mere details of knowing how to do the job.

Our decision, given a choice between Candidate A and Candidate B in hiring for the future, is to not choose, but to wait for the right combination of passion and capability before hiring. We will admit that operations can be effective, even good, in the hands of disciplined competence. We also contend that passion can take good to great.

And great is what separates leaders from laggards. Will greatness always win? No. Will good always fail? Seldom. But what are the risks of being merely good in a world ruled by greatness, and what are the benefits of achieving corporate and competitive greatness?

The value of ferocity
The more we thought about it, though, the more we realized that there is another ingredient in this recipe for success—ferocity. Those who succeed, in many fields and certainly in supply chain management, tend to have an element of fierceness that helps separate them from the competent, the passionate, and the passionately capable.

We know an executive who runs the North American supply chain of a leading specialty products company in an extraordinarily competitive field. She is completely self-taught and has risen through the functional ranks based on a single-minded commitment to master each new challenge.

Ferocity is a hallmark of her every effort—and success, whether in business, in fundraising, or in triathlons. Some days, it is frightening, not on a personal level but to see the determination and commitment up close, and momentarily feel some empathy for those who need to keep up.

Then, consider the late Steve Jobs. Passionate, almost beyond reason. Capable, to be sure, and aggressive about surrounding himself with those capable on other facets of the Apple business. Fun to work with? Maybe for capable people who shared his visions and passion. A cheerleader? Absolutely. Fierce, unyielding, and unbending? For sure.

Did he make mistakes? Did Apple ever stumble? Of course; all that is well documented. But ferocity unleashed the passion and vision, the competence and capability, that propelled the enterprise to heights undreamed of in the world outside the Apple orbit.

Is ferocity always good?
Could it be that this prized attribute is simply passion with a vengeance? Is it possible that the merely competent use fierceness as a way to compensate, to do more than they might based on routine execution alone?

We think not. Vengeance means taking one's eye off the ball to pursue a secondary, perhaps unrelated, purpose. It means doing the same thing over and over in the hope that it will be better, or will work, only more vigorously. The focused individual, both passionate and disciplined, will not take his or her eyes off the prize. The competent and disciplined professional is not so much motivated to get better as to get good, on a consistent basis.

By the way, people with the "fierce gene" are not twisted or anti-social. They can be funny and delightful to be with, shift gears, and lead lives that are full in all the right human dimensions. It's just that, when it comes to career or other competitive arenas, they can focus and fire the afterburners to elevate where their other attributes can take them.

Where do we find ferocity?
We find ferocity all over, whether in business, politics, the arts, religion—and throughout the universe of supply chain management. Think of the people you know in the field who are fierce as well as capable and passionate. Examples might include academics, consultants, corporate executives, material handling specialists, association managers—anyone who is a differentiated leader putting competitive distance between himself or herself and others.

The fierce ones are everywhere, but there aren't actually very many of them. Those with both passion and competence are also found throughout the supply chain, but they are, frankly, outnumbered by the one-dimensional players who have only one card to play.

Art van Bodegraven is president of Van Bodegraven Associates. Kenneth B. Ackerman is president of The Ackerman Company, a warehousing and logistics advisory service.

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