Leadership Found in Discipline and Detours

Why sticking to a plan isn't always the best option.

October 8, 2014, 3:36 PM

— -- When asked why he didn't pitch Al Alburquerque in relief last week in the eighth inning instead of Joba Chamberlain, who for the second night in a row was batted around by the Orioles lineup, Detroit Tigers rookie manager Brad Ausmus, to paraphrase, answered that he had used Chamberlain in the eighth all season, and Alburquerque only in the sixth or seventh innings.

I am a huge believer in consistency and sticking to a plan, and many games, campaigns, policies, businesses or even relationships have gone off the rails when adjustments or changes were made too soon or abruptly and time wasn't allowed for it to work out. But there comes a time when the circumstances have changed or the environment has shifted, and a dramatic move is necessary. Leadership at any level professionally or personally requires the ability to move within the paradox of discipline and detours, in the sweet spot of staying on plan and throwing out the playbook.

Whether someone wants to be a successful leader in their own life, in a business venture, in a campaign for political office, or governing as president of the United States, understanding that while having a disciplined plan is imperative; so too is having the strength and confidence to change direction when the moment calls for it.

Too often we map out the narrative of our journey ahead or the leadership plan we want to implement, and then we get trapped in the idea of defining success as following it to the letter no matter the change in circumstances. And winning becomes defined as "I stuck to my plan through thick and thin" as opposed to actually winning in the marketplace, or passing an important piece of legislation, or building a long-term, healthy, exciting relationship.

So what blocked Ausmus from making the pitching change or other leaders from embracing the paradox and being able to seize the moment and shifting course in order to succeed? Fear.

At the basis of staying in an outmoded plan or old story is a fear of failure or fear that one is ill-equipped to lead on the "road less traveled." So many times key moments arise in our lives and leadership when we have to decide if staying consistently on plan is the best route or if a shift is required. If we are not strong in our own selves and capacities, and get locked in, we miss the signals of the moment.

The number one reason most campaigns lose, presidents don't succeed, businesses fail, or relationships crash is a lack of discipline to a grounded set of values and strategy and communication. Following close behind at number two is the inability to seize the moment when dynamics have changed and then make crucial adjustments. Leadership is holding and doing both, and being open to seeing the world for how it is and not how we want it to be.

A big part of the disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the rest of the country is that many partisans have stayed with an old playbook, old answers, old models, and not accepted the world has changed. So many of the solutions whether economic or foreign policy offered by either party are based on what might have worked 30 years ago (Reagan for the GOP) or 80 years ago (FDR for Dems).

Looking ahead to 2016 we need a leader who sees and understands America today is not America of yesterday. And the greatest success will be found in embracing the paradox of a disciplined strategy, and in being open to the moments of change. And that is the bulls-eye for winners at any level. I wish Ausmus had had less fear and was able to hold that paradox -- maybe my beloved Detroit Tigers would be playing the Kansas Royals in the Championship Series. Otherwise, we can hope leaders learn from their mistakes and overcome their fears next season. And that is how I want to live my life.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.

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