Why leaders should encourage others to soar like Icarus

CEOs need to be open to novel solutions

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 29, 2019

How many of us have been challenged to accomplish an objective where the path to
success was not clear? How many of us found a way to get it done? This is a challenge
that we face many times during our careers.

In August 2015, I wrote an article headlined, “AT&T’s lesson in leadership: How
to break paradigms.” Given the importance of breaking paradigms, this is an
update of that article.

In the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor,” soon after the U.S. declares war on Japan following the
attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt orders the Joint Chiefs of Staff to
strike back by bombing Tokyo. These military leaders offer reasons why it can’t be
done—the U.S. long range bombers don’t have the necessary range from the nearest U.S.
base on Midway Island and Russia won’t let the U.S. launch from Russian territory.
Roosevelt says to them, “Do not tell me it can’t be done.”

What Roosevelt did was challenge the existing paradigms of his military leaders.
Paradigms are an established and accepted set of beliefs. Roosevelt wanted them to be
innovative and think out of the box. It took the assistant chief of staff for anti-submarine
warfare to do so, an individual you would not necessarily expect to come up with a
solution to this challenge. He proposed that B-25 bombers carrying extra fuel be launched
off an aircraft carrier that would sail within aircraft striking range of Tokyo. After the
planes launched, the carrier would turn back, and after the bombing run, the planes would
fly to China and land there.

This bombing mission over Tokyo is enshrined in history as the Doolittle Raid, named
for Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. Even though the mission did
little damage to Japan’s military capability, it provided a needed boost to American
morale, and at the same time showed the Japanese that they were within the reach of
American bombers.

When “something can’t be done,” there is usually a creative path forward that can
achieve the result desired, or a similar result that might serve the purpose originally

Your corporate culture must encourage out-of-the-box thinking and risk-taking for this
process to take place. Collaboration among people from different technical disciplines
and operating units are sometimes needed to find the path forward, as when the assistant
chief of staff for anti-submarine warfare came up with the idea of how to bomb Tokyo.

Rebuilding the phone system

As manager of operations planning early in my career at PQ Corporation, one of the most
impactful lessons I learned was the imperative of breaking paradigms.
Our CEO, Paul Staley, asked Russell Ackoff, then professor of management at the
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to talk with the senior leadership team
at PQ about applying his idealized design approach to our manufacturing technologies to
break our paradigms. As a mid-level manager, I was very fortunate to be included in
these sessions.

Ackoff described a meeting that he attended in 1951, consisting of engineers and
scientists at Bell Labs, a division of the phone company AT&T, in which the facilitator
abruptly announced to the meeting participants that the phone system in the U.S. was just
destroyed. How would they not only rebuild the system, but reimagine and improve it?
The only criteria that they needed to meet were that the new phone system design had to
be technically feasible and operationally viable. The facilitator was asking the meeting
participants to break their paradigms and think out of the box.

In the process of establishing the specifications of the new phone system, the participants
realized that given the expected growth of phone usage, continued use of the rotary dial
phone system in use at the time was not practical. Touch-tone dialing cut 12 seconds off
the time it took to dial a phone number and required much less investment than the
capital-intensive mechanical rotary dial system.

At that moment in history, the touch-tone dial system became the technology of choice
for the future phone system. Little did the participants know the significant impact that a
reimagined phone system based on touch-tone dialing would have on our lives in the

The ideal plant concept

A number of years later as president of PQ’s Industrial Chemicals Group at a meeting
with our plant managers, I posed a similar question to the one that was posed at Bell
Labs. I told the group that our Augusta, Georgia manufacturing plant, built many years
ago, was just destroyed. How would they reimagine, redesign and build the plant to fulfill
the product needs of the plant’s customers? The only criteria were that the redesign
needed to be technically feasible and operationally viable.

We identified new manufacturing approaches we wanted to include in the new plant
design. We subsequently estimated the cost to build and operate the plant and found it
would be significantly less using these new technologies.

Our approach to reimagine this plant was called our ideal plant concept, similar to what
Ackoff called his idealized design. Whenever capital additions were made to our plants,
we considered the risks involved in adopting new technology, and whether we needed to
de-risk the decision by applying and testing out the new technology before putting it into
commercial practice.

Of course, what is the latest state of the art today will be surpassed by new innovations
tomorrow. In addition, this approach fit with our commitment to the continuous
improvement of our manufacturing plants, as well as other aspects of our business

Leaders, create a culture focused on breaking paradigms. This is a way to differentiate
and create a sustainable advantage over your competitors. And remember, when you hear
from employees that something can’t be done, respond with, “Don’t tell me it can’t be
done. Find a way to do it.”

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker,
advisor and nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and
corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in
chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an
alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.
He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Follow Silverman on
LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.