19: The Law of Timing

Great leaders recognize the value of timing: determining when to act is often as important as knowing what to do. Consider a four-square diagram that matrixes competence and timing:

  1. The wrong action at the wrong time leads to disaster. Bad timing and bad ideas have an exponential effect.
  2. The right action at the wrong time leads to failure. This is especially true when dealing with people, as most leaders do: catch people at the wrong time, and they will resist ideas and defy directives they might accept at a more opportune time.
  3. The wrong action at the right time is a mistake. Some ideas are just erroneous and will fail under the most fortuitous circumstances.
  4. The right action at the right time leads to success. This is where everything seems to come together perfectly, and leaders accomplish incredible things.

The author disparages the concept of luck, as it is a failure to appreciate that things don't turn out well on their own. Success comes from having a sound plan in reserve and the ability to recognize when the time is right to act.

Timing in Warfare

The author considers a few examples from the military:

He considers the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq: the President was pressured to take an immediate stance after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 to stop the enemy from building momentum - but he realized that conditions were not right, and there weren't enough men and materiel in the region to respond. As such, he chose not to act immediately and was criticized fro doing so. In January 1991, sufficient resources had been moved to the area to launch an offensive, overcoming the Iraqi forces in about a month at a cost of fewer than 150 casualties.

The opposite example is provided by the first battle at Gettysburg, in which General Lee swept over the town, routing the enemy. Rather than waiting for additional troops from General Stuart, Lee recognized that "our army is in good spirits, not fatigued, and can be concentrated on any one point in twenty-four hours or less. ... When they [Stuart's forces] hear where we are they will make forced marches ... they will come up broken down from hunger and hard marching." Moreover, the time spent waiting for Stuart would have given the enemy time to dig in and offer greater resistance. With all of this in mind, it made sense to act hastily.

The author goes on to account for a few opportunities in which the failure of Southern generals to act led to defeat, in a few battles that historians agree might have changed the outcome of the war.

(EN: The notion of timing seems hazy - I find it easier to fathom as the leader's ability to consider the conditions: a good plan can go awry if the situation is not suitable - and the notion of "timing" comes into play when a leader doesn't have the power or ability to change conditions, hence must wait for conditions to change. The weather, the economy, the culture, and other factors are part of the environment in which a plan is carried out - and if a plan counts on certain conditions and cannot include a contingency to achieve success where conditions are not according to plan, you must wait for conditions to change on their own. This seems to irk people who expect leaders to be omnipotent, but that's unreasonable. As the saying goes, you must learn to accept the things you can't change, but keep an eye out for the window of opportunity when conditions change in your favor.)