Aristotle, Maister, and the Fat Smoker

David Maister has a new book out—Strategy and the Fat Smoker.

The title is personal—David once was heavy and smoked. And used both facts to explain something to his clients.

It was that people don’t change by being told why they should.

Alcoholics, smokers and foodies are not stupid. Nor are clients. Yet stupidity is the diagnosis implicit in the advice given by many doctors—and lawyers, and consultants, and accountants, et al.

Most strategic thinking is of this type, he says. It’s all about the decision—which, as Maister points out, is not that difficult, nor does the advice vary much. Quit smoking. Be number one or two in your market. Go on a diet. Outsource what you’re not best at. Drink less; cut back on fats; exercise. Globalize; decentralize; collaborate.

But talk is cheap: execution is rare. Brilliant strategies un-executed are worth less than the bytes they’re stored on. We tend to think that because we’ve thought something out, the hard work is done. Of course, it’s not.

Why is this? Because firms— like fat smokers—avoid the tough work of real strategy execution.

Maister works in professional services—but the issue he raises is universal.

He’s touching on the philosophic issue of moral weakness, called (confusingly to the modern audience) incontinence. The Greek term is akrasia.


How can it be that someone can know the right thing, be capable of doing it and free to do it, even want to do it—and yet not do it?

The problem goes back to Aristotle and Plato. Read Duncan Davidson for more, but—crudely summarized—here’s the ancients’ views:

Aristotle basically says the problem doesn’t really exist. “Man thinks, and forthwith he acts,” is how he puts it.

So, if you didn’t do something you thought was right, it’s either because you really weren’t capable of or free to do what was right—or because you frankly didn’t want to do it. There’s no problem here, he says; an alcoholic isn’t hard to understand—either he’s addicted and therefore not free, or he just likes drinking more than not drinking—in which case, he drinks. Where’s the problem understanding that?

For Plato, the incontinent is either un-reflective, or of weak character. The fat smoker either doesn’t really understand how self-harmful he is—or he is just a moral weakling. Both are common among humans. Incontinence, says Plato, is unremarkable—it’s pretty much the human condition. (This is often the view of consultants—if only my clients were bright enough, they’d see my wisdom—and then the problem would be solved.)

Maister hews unconsciously to another philosopher—Karl Marx—who once said, “The point is not to understand the world, but to change it.” That’s Maister’s subject—how to change strategically.

Appropriately, his answers aren’t derived from theory or deduction, but from observation and reflection. And they are rich. Here are a few:

• The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight, but resolve.

• Leaders in most organizations don’t really want to do what it takes. They are just fine with doing pretty well, and getting by. They don’t honestly, seriously, want to do what it takes to be great—though they prefer to avoid saying so.

• Emphasize the journey, not the goal. Whether it’s quitting smoking or becoming number one in the market, goal-focus makes the journey feel like punishment. But if you focus on the journey in small chunks (“just don’t drink today,” “just don’t lie to a client”), then progress can be felt and appreciated.

• Stop talking the language of destinations—it allows hiding out, fudging, and is intimidating. Instead, talk the language of principles and behaviors.

• Principles are more effective than tactics. Managers who get things done are those whose people believe their leaders believe in something.

• Motivation must be intrinsic, not extrinsic. The biggest barrier to change is the feeling that “it’s OK so far.”

• Strategy means saying “no.” Strategy execution is defined better by what you won’t do than what you will do—and then really not doing it. At all.

• There is a hierarchy of integrating concepts, roughly from purpose and mission, to vision and direction, to values and principles, and then to rules of behavior. All are required, and in roughly that sequence.

Maister goes on to explain that successful sellers, managers and leaders do not succumb to a reductionist view of the world, focusing on processes, data, systems and rewards, but instead are engaged—personally, deeply, in a genuine way—with the people they relate to.

And, he’s got data to prove it. He’s not at all saying “nice guys” finish first; he’s saying you can’t do business by the numbers alone. Business, done right, is a contact sport. It’s about relationships—mutual ones, honest ones. And very much about trust.

All his career, Maister has been fond of saying he’s not preaching morality, just practicalities. In this book, however, he comes close to squaring the circle, and says as much:

People who are acting on principle are much more likely to get done what they say they will do than will those who are doing those things solely in pursuit of future rewards…Whether people know your principles and trust you is a major determinant of how they are going to respond to you…The most effective organizations are those that are held together by shared and enforced principles, values and standards.

In the end, Maister touches both Plato and Aristotle. If you fail to execute your goals, in a sense it really is because you didn’t want them enough (Aristotle). And those who really are willing to do the hard work of living by principles are relatively few (Plato).

Most firms (and people) are in the broad middle: going through the moves, faking it with analyses and business processes, and telling ourselves “it’s OK so far.”

One thing’s clear: it’s a choice, and the choice not to choose is a choice as well.


(Full disclosure: Maister was my co-author, along with Rob Galford, of The Trusted Advisor, Free Press, 2000).

9 replies
  1. Stuart Cross
    Stuart Cross says:

    Charlie, this is a great summary and covers some really important points. I know that we’ve had this conversation before, but building on your thought that managers actions (even to do nothing) are logical, my own reflection is that this is based on the pleasure/pain principle.

    Simply put, managers must view the ‘new’ strategy as giving more ‘pleasure’ and less ‘pain’ as their current strategy, and that the new strategy is worth the ‘pain’ of the journey. This is why it is often only in  a crisis that the major strategic changes are made – the ‘pain’ is big enough to drive managers to change (similar to a heart attack or stroke for David’s fat smoker).

    The job of leaders is to engage people across organisations to be willing to forego immediate pleasure in order to gain longer term pleasure. Trust is absolutely at the heart of this relationship-building approach.

  2. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    I think it’s also the case that sometimes it’s less obvious than consultants make it out to be. A while back you wrote an article on how a CEO disagreed with consultant advice to distribute earnings to shareholders, and how he used those earnings to buy things up at the right time and become a market leader.

    Some things really are obvious (being a fat smoker is sucky). But some things only seem obvious–for example outsourcing key support functions often leaves you dependent on other firms and unable to move flexibly. Those firms may be better than you at those functions, because those support functions aren’t what you "do", but being dependent on them is not worth the advantages.

    And every firm shouldn’t be #1 in the world. Being "good enough" is often a better strategy, because there are a pile of customers who need "good enough" because they can’t afford to pay for "the best".

    Mind you, David does touch on this often–that it’s ok to be "mediocre" just admit that’s what you want to do. Same thing with insourcing–just admit that you want the control, and that you’re willing to trade off some cost savings for it.

    And maybe, just maybe, because you understand your own business better than the outsourcing companies, maybe the consultants aren’t right and you can do it better–at least better "for you".

    And while smoking is probably never good for you, a Sumo wrestler probably doesn’t want to lose weight either.

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Interesting takes.

    Deferred gratification is definitely at issue here, as Stuart says (Maister talks about it too, as does Plato).  Basically acting in a principled way generally involves gratification deferment, which means those of us who just can’t wait for things to be better are generally an unprincipled lot.

    Delightful comments Ian; it is, after all, about honesty.  Nothing wrong with mediocrity; half the doctors in the world graduated in the bottom half of their class.  Not everyone can be from Lake Wobegon, where everyone’s above average.

    And yes, consultants do surely get it wrong on occasion–frequent occasions.  I oughta know, I’ve been and am one!

    (Though I never thought about the Sumo wrestler example, I like that…)

  4. Steve Campbell
    Steve Campbell says:

    The concept of a willingness to do or not do has been an issue for many generations as has been stated in this article. Many do not have the willingness to change be it dietary habits, smoking, or making the necessary changes to move forward in their business. Routine becomes comfortable and people do not like leaving their comfort level as was hinted with the pleasure vs pain comment. Getting out of habit and routine is seen as uncomfortable and painful because being in a rut is easier than stepping out of it. Those who don’t exercise don’t want to start simply because it would take away time from what they are already doing. They are comfortable with what they are currently doing and making the right change in life would take effort they do not want to put forth. There is always a choice but most people do not want to change until there is too much pain associated with the activity that it becomes necessary to change. The same can be said with people in relationships. They do not want to leave the relationship until they have finally reached a point where it is so unbearable to remain in that they have no choice but to change. People like to look for the easy route out which is simply going with what is currently allowing them to survive. Those who have the ability to not become comfortable are the ones who move ahead. They view comfort as painful, whereas many see comfort as pleasure. Those who move ahead always want something new and something more in life. They are the few of the majority and will more than likely remain so for the immediate future.


  5. Narconon Vista Bay
    Narconon Vista Bay says:

    I find it odd that so many people think that people are so unwilling to change. I think that people do not have the tools needed in order to change. So many people want something other than what their mundane lives have to offer them. I believe that it’s not that people get used to roboticness but that they don’t know how to make their lives any other way. Narconon Vista Bay can help people with is. Being able to flourish and prosper is what keeps people happy. We need to educate oursleves with the tools needed in order to do so.

  6. charles
    charles says:

    u have put some interesting fact about addiction & i think this are all true indeedt.there is a common miosconception about drug or smoke addicttion & it is those who are in addiction are unwilling to change their way of life .but how wrong they are!this addict people knows the fatal impact of it in their life & willing to change but failed to do so because they are helpless againaist we need to extend our hands for these people to get out of that cursed life just like Narconon Vista Bay is doing for the drug addict people to rehabilitate so that these people can lead a normal life just like the rest of us.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] don’t need me to tell you it’s a stupid waste of time. As David Maister wrote in his book Strategy and the Fat Smoker, the issue is not one of diagnosis, but of implementation. What can you do to get out of the […]

  2. […] don’t need me to tell you it’s a stupid waste of time.  As David Maister wrote in his book Strategy and the Fat Smoker, the issue is not one of diagnosis, but of implementation.  What can you do to get out of the […]

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