Three Lessons

Being in business I find the debate over the aftermath of the major combat in Iraq especially intriguing. Intriguing because it speaks to three very important issues in business: working with imperfect knowledge, patience, and gratitude.

The fact that we haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction we had expected to find in Iraq is a good starting place. Not because I have any special knowledge as to whether they will ultimately be found. They may still be uncovered.

But what I find fascinating is the assumption in some parts that if we were, in fact, mistaken, we shouldn’t have acted.

Last year, writing on this page as we stood on the verge of battle, I wrote this: “With travel, tourism, immigration or a modern missile, those oceans are no longer mighty buffers, and with the capacity of a single weapon of mass destruction being so great, the consequences of being wrong are…unthinkable.”

And that really makes the case. If the consequences of being wrong are unthinkable, we need to err on the side of action. We will never have perfect knowledge about these closed societies. If the consequences of being wrong are small, we can wait and run the risk. My fear is that some future administration, or even this administration cowed by this experience, will hesitate, will study too long and we will wake up one day to learn there are a half a million dead in San Francisco because a terrorist got his hands on a biological weapon.

I also find the expectation of immediate success to be unnerving. When John F. Kennedy called our people to “a long twilight struggle”, he pledged that we would “pay any price, bear any burden.” Americans must remember we fought communism for a half a century before the Berlin Wall fell. The forces that wish us ill this time may take far longer to defeat.

It also shows ignorance of history. People remember the Marshall Plan as a great success in restoring Europe. But they forget that the Marshall Plan wasn’t proposed until three years after the war ended and was proposed because post-war reconstruction was so troubled.

Every soldier lost is a tragedy for the family. Yet we are well to remember, we could lose one soldier a day for almost a decade before we approached the numbers lost on September 11, 2001. And these are soldiers who have volunteered to put their lives at risk in service to their country – not innocent civilians sitting at their desks.

If our presence in Iraq leads those who wish us ill to concentrate their efforts on our forces in Iraq and distracts them from attacking our homeland, we have done something exceedingly important.

The lack of gratitude strikes one as particularly unseemly. Things could have gone much worse. Hundreds of thousands dead in battle, the use of unconventional weapons, a massive outcry in the so-called “Arab Street” – none of this came to pass.

Instead, we lifted the yoke off an oppressed people and in much of Iraq, things are already better than they used to be. Still, we face resistance both from Iraqis and other enemies who have slithered in to fight us. Well, we are a hospitable nation and, though we yearn for peace, if they hanker for battle, we will just have to accommodate them. And we should be filled with gratitude that we have the capability to do so.

This is the 19th Special Note I’ve had the privilege of addressing to the produce industry, for it is the 18th anniversary of PRODUCE BUSINESS that we celebrate at PMA in Orlando. I remember the flight to San Francisco, where the PMA convention was held in October 1985, to introduce PRODUCE BUSINESS. I remember a young man’s heart filled with a young man’s dreams.

I travel this time by car, and I carry new and different, but no fewer, dreams today. But I also have learned some truths about making those dreams come true, and the principles evident in the Iraqi situation today have lessons for all in business:

1) Never be paralyzed by imperfect knowledge. Perhaps the single biggest problem in business today is that the incentive structure often works in such a way that individuals want to avoid responsibility. As a result, projects get studied to death and never launched. Consultants are retained in the hope they will say what the hiring party already believes so that if things don’t work out they can blame the consultant. Individuals hesitate and the moment is lost. If you act you will have failures, you will make mistakes, but, if you are smart and know what you are doing, your successes will outnumber your failures. And you will learn from those failures more than you do from your successes.

2) Do not expect overnight success. The second-most common problem I see in business is the launching of products and divisions that are never really given time to succeed. The biggest part of your budget for most new things is not the thing itself; it is the money needed to market and sustain the thing until A) You get it right, and B) The world recognizes it. Great things are closed down every day and counted as failures when, in reality, they were incipient successes killed off by shortsighted management.

3) Gratitude. Above all else, gratitude. It may be an old-fashioned word, but I guess I have never been accused of being excessively trendy. Still, old-fashioned or not, it strikes me as the great key to pride and happiness. After almost a generation of doing this, my favorite thing is still to go through the mail. Because when I look at the subscriptions coming in, I get a thrill reading every name: “This important person at big company values what we do…” “This new startup thinks we can help…” “This guy is all the way in Fiji and says he wants three year’s worth…” And every day I look at the mail, the subscriptions, the letters to the editor, the ads, the people who want coverage – and I feel gratitude that they value our help.

I look at my sons and remember they are healthy; I look at my wife and know that she loves me; I look at my parents and see they are vibrant. I go to work every day and get the privilege of working with both my best friend and the best group of people I could imagine.

And then I get a call from a man who has bought billions of dollars of produce. I had written a cover essay on Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), and he called to tell me that though he had given up, after reading my piece, he had decided to fight for what he believed in.

Then I remember the difference. I think of my father, Michael, my grandfather, Harry, my great-grandfather Jacob – all who labored in this great trade and remember the promise I made to them, to not merely take from this industry that had always sustained my family, but to give, to make it better, to initiate industry improvement.

I feel gratitude, deep and abiding gratitude that I’ve been privileged to live this life.

We normally fill these pages with strictly business, but one page, once a year, is a report beyond business. This is that page. And we all have to move ahead into the next year, doing the best we can with imperfect knowledge, but structuring things so we give ourselves a chance to succeed and understanding that our happiness is always determined more by the sincerity of our gratitude for what we have than by our success in getting more.