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).