Recognise when the roundabout way is best

The years Moses spent wandering in the desert are misunderstood by a great many people. His route was purposeful, and there was never any question of being lost. From the outset God saw that the Israelites weren’t ready for an aggressive itinerary: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “the people may have a change of heart when they see way, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

The distance between Egypt and Canaan isn’t great; it has been driven before in a few hours. But the psychological distance the Israelites had to travel before they were capable of conquering Canaan was a much longer trip. By the time Moses shepherded the former slaves to Mount Sinai, it was clear they were not ready to accept the Ten Commandments, much less challenge the inhabitants of Canaan. As it turned out, the group that left Egypt would never be ready. Moses took the Israelites the way they needed to go to grow. It took forty years to raise a tough new generation, forty years to prove to themselves that they were capable of taking their Promised Land.

Sometimes it is more important to prove that a task can be done well than to do it quickly. To outsiders, it may seem slow or circuitous, but outsiders do not know your staff. You alone are aware of their abilities and weaknesses. If Moses had led the Israelites into the Promised Land as disorganized and poorly motivated as they were, they would have failed miserably.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff on January 28, 1986, the behind-the-scenes scramble that had preceded the launch was reported everywhere. The spacecraft carried Christa McAuliffe, the first astronaut in the much-publicized Teacher-in-Space Program. In his state-of-the-union address, to be delivered the evening of the launch, President Ronald Reagan planned to devote three paragraphs to McAuliffe and the program. Political pressure to get the shuttle off the ground had led NASA to disregard the warnings of scientists who were concerned about the spacecraft’s O-rings. There was too much pressure to get the job done, and not enough will to get it done right. The roundabout way—waiting until the weather was optimal and fixing the O-rings—would have skirted the tragedy.

Lansing, the first female head of a major motion picture studio, is widely heralded as the patron saint of women in the film business. “I knew I wanted to be in the movies,” she said, but when she first got started in the 1970s, the industry was mostly a boys’ club. Lansing, a teacher, decided to try acting, “because that was all I knew a woman could do in film. But I did not like it—I felt very uncomfortable. I did not know how to be anybody other than myself.” She began by asking people on the set about their jobs. “I never had a master plan,” she says cheerfully. “I never said. ‘I want to produce movies,’ or, ‘One day I will be head of this studio.’”

Instead, Lansing followed her interests wherever they led. She got out of acting and began reading scripts. From them on, “Each step was exciting in and of itself. Each job seemed like heaven, and I didn’t really have the next goal. When I was promoted to vice president of creative affairs, which meant you read the material and actually got to work with the writers. Then I became vice president of production, which meant you actually got to work on the production. Then I became head of production, then head of 20th Century-Fox.

Far from being the driven businesswoman with a dream to rise to the top of a competitive industry, Lansing always focused on the moment. “I often say, ‘just trying is worthy of respect. Just trying to write a book is great. Just getting up to bat is great. Enjoy the process, and do not worry about being a success.’” In real life, business is not a straight path but a series of ups and downs, cyclical like the seasons. With any endeavor, there are numerous influences that might change one’s original route. Fluctuations in the market, the political scene, overseas economics, and even the weather might mean that waiting or regrouping will ultimately get you there faster than changing ahead.

Entrepreneurship Skip Lane took a path that meandered, doubled back on itself, and ultimately reached the right destination. Directly out of school, Lane signed on with Cable & Wireless PLC, a London-based telecommunications company. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal (June 22, 1998), he recalled; “With the company going through lots of changes and growth, I decided that I could do the same thing—at twenty-four years of age—and get married in the same year. So I decided to start a long-distance resale company. I quickly realized that I was going to need three times as much money, three times the expertise, three times the experience, and about twelve times the luck.”

A year and a half later, Lane merged his company with a larger one that had the experience, money, and customer base he needed. But at the time of the merger, he found out his new company would itself be merging with ITT. “I didn’t want to work with ITT,” Lane stated. So he went back to Cable & Wireless, “to get more education and more experience in the business world.” For seven years he learned the ropes in sales and development. Finally, although he was earning an excellent salary, Lane quit Cable &Wireless to try building his own company again. In June 1992, he founded Network One. No longer an eager but inexperienced twenty-something, he now had the savvy to make his business a success. Today, the company employs more than sixty people!

As much as our society prizes the can-do, bluff-your-way-through-anything spirit, people like Sherry Lansing and Skip Lane show us that faster is not always wiser. If your “wandering” makes you stronger, smarter, and better equipped for the future, you are on the right path. And you shall soon be highly celebrated.

See you where successful people are found!

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