Rails and Fences

There are true stories and stories that are so good they deserve to be true, even when they’re not. The tale I’m about to relate probably falls into the latter category.

I heard it many years ago and have remembered it ever since, although its provenance escapes me.

It takes place in the heyday of the American West, when railroads were expanding across the country at breakneck speed and fortunes were being made even faster.

An old school Tycoon is being interviewed by a Journalist, in the gilt and velvet splendor of his private railroad car.

In the middle of the interview, the railroad’s Chief Engineer apologizes for interrupting with an urgent matter.

There are mountains on the route ahead, where the track needs to be laid, and the Chief Engineer has identified three options.

A tunnel could be blasted through the mountains.

A detour of many miles could be taken circumventing the mountains altogether.

A series of cuttings and bridges could be built routing the line through the foothills of the mountains.

Each option has its merits and its drawbacks.

The Engineer is stumped and wants the Tycoon’s advice.

A map is hastily unrolled across the Tycoon’s carved mahogany desk and the engineer traces the possibilities with a pencil.

It’s a complex problem involving engineering, obviously, but also immediate and long-term cost effectiveness, supply logistics and more.

The Tycoon ponders for a minute or two.

He asks the Engineer a couple of questions.

Then he tells him to go ahead and start blasting the tunnel.

The Journalist is gob smacked.

When the Engineer leaves he asks the Tycoon how he could solve a problem of such complexity so fast.

The Tycoon admits he had no idea what the best solution was.

And goes onto explain that since none were obviously superior and there was a one-in-three chance of picking the right one, so he just took a guess.

The incredulous Journalist asks how he could let a guess decide such an important financial matter.

A matter with hundreds of millions of dollars, in today's money at stake.

The Tycoon replies that the money was not his first concern, for him the important thing was to show leadership, especially because he was uncertain.

Leadership is one of the holy grails of business.

It’s right up there with profitability and innovation.

Thousands of books have been written, and keynotes delivered, to make business people better leaders.

This is all good.

But the most essential trait of a good leader is simply this.

They don’t sit on the fence.