How to Develop Executive Power

LEE FRANCIS LYBARGER July 1 1909

How to Develop Executive Power

LEE FRANCIS LYBARGER July 1 1909

WILL POWER and executive ability are so closely connected that neither of them can be considered alone. While executive ability is the broader term, yet will-power is its foundation. Executive ability rests upon two things: Intellect and will. And even one corner of the structure called Will rests upon the Intellect. You cannot increase your executive ability without increasing your will-power. And both depend in their growth upon a keener intellectual grasp and discrimination.

Will-power may be said to consist in two things : Choice and Volition.

In other words, Will consists, first, in the power to make a choice, to form a decision, to lay a plan ; and, second, in that “persistence of effort” which attains the realization of the choice. The first process forms the conception ; the second carries it into execution. The first decides what is to be done ; the second does it. The results of the first process of Will is represented by the “plans and specifications” of a building; the results of the second, by the completed structure itself.

Ribot says, “To will is to choose in order to act.” And so the first element of will-power is the capacity to choose, to decide, to elect, to pick, make a choice, form a plan, reach a conclusion, come to a decision. And I find that Webster makes this the only function of the Will.  He defines it thus: The power of choosing; the faculty or endowment of the soul by which it is capable of choosing; the faculty or power of the mind by which it decides to do or not to do; the power or faculty of preferring or selecting one of two or more objects.”

And to this power of choice I have added, as the second element, that power and “persistence of effort” which continues until the choice, or decision, is attained. And this second element of Will I have designated Volition, notwithstanding the fact that Webster makes Volition and Will practically synonymous. But here are clearly two processes instead of one; (1) I decide to go (2) and I go. And since different things should have different names, I have labeled the one Choice and the other Volition.

The making of a definite choice lies at the foundation of a strong will. There must be something to do before we can do it. To choose means to decide between two or more alternatives. Choice is that power of the mind which enables it to feel and express a preference between two or more persons, plans, or objects. A strong will enables the individual to form a decided preference, even when no decided preference exists in his mind.

And the opposite of the power of choice is Indecision. When the individual is unable to decide, when he is unable to make up his mind as to which course to pursue, when he hesitates, doubts, wavers, oscillates— reaching first one conclusion and then another—we have the first element of a weak will. And so the first foe to great will-power is indecision— and a colossal foe it is. Hesitancy, confusion, doubt, indecision, and fear ultimately end in defeat and failure.

Few people have a developed power of choice. The moment the individual takes up the consideration of two or more alternatives, and begins to picture the possibility of each, his mind becomes so confused with conflicting wants, ideas, wishes, possibilities, as to paralyze the Will. And the difficulty may arise from one of four things : First, because he does not know definitely his own mind in the matter. Second, because of his inability to picture vividly to his mind the different results which would follow from the different courses, in order that he might know which result he most preferred. Third, because the contrasts between them are so great that he cannot get a common basis of comparison. And fourth, because of the reverse condition—the resemblance is so close that there is no preference in his mind. And without preference there can be no choice.

The second element of Will is Volition—the power of persistence of effort in the enforcement of a decision. Persistence of effort, dogged determination, indomitable resolution, steadfastness of purpose, untiring perseverance, unwavering persistence, unconquerable zeal in the pursuit of some object, perennial enthusiasm in carrying out some plan of action— these are the supreme tests of a developed, masterful will.

Men of great volition have gone persistently onward in the course which they mapped out. Nothing could stay them. Nothing could stop their onward movement. There was opposition. There was danger. There were obstacles. There were criticisms. There were seemingly insurmountable difficulties. But they marched onward, right on, as steadily and royally as if these things did not exist. The greater the opposition the greater the possibilities for the joys of resistance. And yet there cannot be persistence of effort without persistence of Will.

The time element is the great element of Volition. There are millions of people who can persist in the enforcement of a decision for a little while—a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, a few weeks. But when it comes to persisting in a given effort, when it comes to keeping at the same thing, for months and years, end even decades, the matter is wholly different. Only men and women of heroic will can do this.

Did conditions remain as they are when the choice is made—when the plan of action is decided upon—it would be easy to carry it into execution. But conditions do not remain the same. They are transient and unstable. Even thoughts and feelings, emotions and sentiments, are continuously changing. In fact, the whole surroundings soon become different. These are the dire facts which crush so many resolutions. And then when the determined plan of action runs through weeks and months and even years—with all their changes in feelings, thoughts, sentiments and conditions—we see why it is that so few men are able to conduct great enterprises. They have not the will-power for such a colossal and continuous task. Their volitional energy is too soon exhausted. They lack both the genius to plan and the persistence of effort to execute.

While we have made Will consist of two processes, Choice and Volition, yet there are innumerable circumstances in life in which but the one element is present. And that is the element of Choice. Nothing more is required than to make a decision. There are no commands to be obeyed, no resolutions to be carried out, no path to be followed, no plans to be executed. All that is required is the making of a choice, the forming of a decision, the reaching of a conclusion.

This first element of Will, and of executive ability, is developed in but comparatively few people. In most things in life I am convinced that people do not make a choice. They are not “the architects of this own fortune.” They are not their own pilots in the voyage of life. They do not elect their career. They do not pick out the path they are to travel. In short, they do not choose ; they simply drift. That which they are now doing they did not plan to do. The path they are now traveling was not of their choosing. And the place they now live in was not of their choice. They did not select it. It seems to have selected them.

And I think this holds true in most of the facts of life. There was no choice, no option, no election, no preference, no will in the matter. No alternatives were presented. They had no chance to either choose or refuse. They simply took the only opportunity offered. What else could they do? But that was not choosing. And man becomes an individual and a personality, and the master of his own fate and fortune, just to the extent that he rises out of this condition, just to the extent that he increases the facts and conditions and relations in life which are of his own choice, will, and preference.

There is a second class of things in which, while they had the opportunity to choose, they had not the capacity to make a choice. They could not come to any conclusion. They could not make up their minds to either choose or refuse, accept or reject, go or stay. And while they thus hesitated, wavered, doubted, consulted, delayed, the opportunity to choose went by. And so it was not choice but necessity that put them into the path they now travel. And they entered upon it as if in the confusion and hesitancy of a dream, walking backwards.

It is always possible—and usually painful—to look back over the highway of life and see where the roads forked. And while seeing clearly the one we took, we also realize that it was not of our choosing. We probably had no choice in the matter. Or if we had, we now realize that while we were debating as to which road we would take, the opportunity to choose went by and blind Necessity pushed us into the road we now travel. In the midst of the mental confusion—caused by indecision, hesitancy and doubt—Fate picked our path for us. And at most of the cross-roads of life, perhaps, this fact holds true.

And then there is a third class of things—or of lines of destiny—in which, while we had a chance to choose—and did choose, yet the choice we made did not represent our actual preference in the matter. The things we took were not the ones we most wanted—perhaps did not want at all. Why, then, did we take them? Why did we make such a choice? That is a question which we will go on asking all through life. And should too many such questions accumulate in the course of a life-time, they will crush the very heart out of us.

I am convinced that so feeble is the power of choice in most people, and so undeveloped in their capacity to make a decision—especially one which actually corresponds to their real feelings—that in many things in life, if not in most things, they did not choose the things they most desired to do, nor pick the course they most desired to follow. But having made the choice, they are bound to abide by it. All through life they will be carrying out contracts, meeting obligations and slaving to complete enterprises which, though of their own choosing, were not of their choice. Their decision did not represent their preference.

It is not so easy to say why this is so. And yet we can find some clue to this strange fact in that Puritanic effort—begun way back in infancy— to crush out of us the little individuality and self-assertion which may have been germinating there. We were taught never to take the largest apple, never to take the biggest piece of cake, never to take the choicest slice, never to take that which we most desired of anything. That must always be left for somebody else. And so from infancy onward the effort has been made to establish in us the habit of never taking the thing we most desired to take. And the effort has been sadly successful. And yet it is only men of pre-eminent self-assertion, men who see the choicest things and then grab them for themselves, men who prefer self and their own comfort or profit over that of others, who make the great successes in life.

There is yet another reason why one should make a choice which does not represent his actual preference. It arises from a false conception of self-control. Many people, in their enthusiastic attempt to conquer their their feelings and emotions and reduce them to absolute subjection, have succeeded even to the point of their extermination. They have controlled their emotions so effectually and so continuously that there is really nothing left to control. Within the wide realm of their being there is not a normal, spontaneous feeling.

It is natural for mankind to go to extremes. And no greater extreme can be conceived than the idea that the satisfaction of every desire is to be checked, that every want is to be denied, every impulse crushed, and every passion strangled. The opposite extreme—though still an extreme —is nearer the truth. All normal, natural desires should be—must be—satisfied, if life is to be perpetuated. Expression, and not repression, is the law of life. If the strong and cultured Will closes some avenues for the outflow of nervous energy, it is simply to open and enlarge more effectual ones. And so self-assertion is indespensable to life and happiness.

II.

Traits of Developed Choice.

Of the two elements constituting "Will—choice and that persistence of effort which brings about a realization of the choice—we need to note in reference to a highly developed power of choosing several important characteristics. First, the capability to actually make a choice—a decisive, fixed, definite choice. And the decision must not be partial, but whole, entire, complete. It must be an actual, positive, decisive choice. And so far as possible, the choice should be consciously made. We should realize that we are rendering a decision—consciously linking our lives in the chain of destiny.

Second, the choice, when made should represent our actual feelings. It should be the expression of our predominant desires. I hold that the Will, in choosing, should be a servant and not a dictator, a slave and not a master.

Third, having chosen one of several alternatives, all the rest should be banished from the mind. The man of developed power of choice may hesitate long; yet having picked one plan from the many, the many will be forgotten. His mind is now as free from their influence as if they never had been. Doubt is over. Hesitancy is over. “The die is cast.”

And here we have one of the great psychic elements which distinguishes the man of executive ability from the common man. That foe to all action —regret—does not reach him. He will hesitate, doubt, compare, discriminate, speculate, and reconsider before a choice is made—but not afterwards. But the man of inferior executive ability—though having made a decision, though having picked his course—keeps on comparing, deciding, doubting, and picking. And though having decided over and over many times, he still hesitates in the execution for fear of a mistake in the planning, for fear that he has blundered in the choice.

But the man with a trained will, having decided once, never turns back—never reconsiders. He says to his memory in reference to any other choice he might have made “forget it.” Before making the choice he saw many roads that he might take. But after making it he sees but one.

But this one road he intends shall lead to victory. Faith, firmness, concentration, and decisiveness have taken the place of indecision, confusion, and doubt.

Fourth, having made a choice, having decided upon a plan, we must have the courage to stand by it. The man of high executive ability is not terrified, as is the average man, by the fact of a mistake—and the probability of more to follow. He is not frightened to death because of a failure. His teeming activities are not paralyzed because of a blunder. Defeat to him is nothing more than delay. He regards nothing as final but achievement, success—victory.

Does the successful man never make mistakes? He does. Does he never choose the wrong course? Sometimes. Does he never blunder in his decisions? Often. How, then, does he succeed? First, by having a predominance of correct decisions. Second, by enforcing these with unerring precision and celerity of movement. Vigor, confidence, firmness, and promptness of execution are a great aid even to bad judgment. Better a poor plan well executed, than a good plan poorly executed.

Your man of high executive ability, of developed power of choice, of keen capacity in the forming of a plan, knows that he will make many mistakes, many blunders, many errors, many bad decisions. He knows that after the work is all done he will see numerous places where it could have been better. But what of it? Life is as much in the striving as in the gaining, in the effort as in the reward, in the sowing as in the reaping. The old maxim said, “There is more pleasure in pursuit than there is in possession.”

The man devoid of a developed will—though tortured with ambition —spends most of his time in vain regrets. The seeing of a better way to have done the work, the discovery of a better plan which might have been taken, or the finding of a better route, fills him beyond endurance with the pangs of regret. Many people have acquired—or inherited—the habit of regretting absolutely everything they do. The thing they lost is always more important than the thing they gained. They never can fearlessly face the future because of regrets for the past. To them are the words of Whittier most true that

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these, ‘it might have been.’ ”

Of the wavering, indecisive, irresolute hero in the beautiful poem of Lucile, we are told that “whatever he did he was sure to regret.”

“With irresolute finger he knocked at each one

Of the doorways of life, and abided in none.

His course, by each star that would cross it, was set,

And whatever he did he was sure to regret.”

The choice made by a man of executive ability is conclusive. It is final—ultimate. He does not make the decision over and over again. Once is enough. It is then a matter of having the courage to enforce it. Having decided upon a plan, he passes immediately to the means of its execution. He does not waste all his energy in reconsiderations. Having decided he now acts, and acts vigorously.

The successful man knows but little of regrets, care but little for past failures, and broods but little over the blunders he has made. And he could not be successful if he did.

And yet it is not because he never fell down that he is now up, but simply because he would not stay down. It may have been another’s fault that he fell. It would have been his own had he lain there. His final success came not because he did not blunder, but because he did not keep his attention constantly on his blunders. He dwelt upon these simply long enough to find the cause, so as not to make the same mistake twice. Once is enough. One should have variety even in his blunders. And so while the eyes of the one were fixed on failure, those of the other were fixed constantly on success.

A fifth characteristic of the power of a developed choice is definiteness. A plan clearly, vividly, and intensely conceived is already half executed. The choice must not only be decisive but incisive. When the plan lacks the quality of definiteness, when it is uncertain, vague and foggy—indistinct in outline and uncertain as to detail—a swift and vigorous execution is impossible. And so before there can be speed and accuracy of execution, there must be definiteness of planning. And the more definite, distinct, exact, and clear-cut the choice or decision, the easier its execution. A plan of action possessing such qualities will almost execute itself.

A sixth characteristic of a developed power to choose is promptness of decision. While the whole field should be carefully surveyed before the choice is made, while every alternative should be examined and the possibilities of each considered; yet it must be recognized that time is an element in the making of a choice. All things are in motion. Even the planet on which we live, and the sun around which it revolves, is moving. Our time is always limited. Even life is limited. And on many a hard-fought field promptness of decision turned defeat into victory.

I think it holds true that men possessing great promptness and decisiveness of decision were men strongly given to meditation. They had the imaginative power to picture nearly all possible contingencies, and thus to decide beforehand what they would do under each one. Their prompt decisions were the product of premeditation. In their solitary wanderings and musings they were picturing, dreaming, speculating, conjecturing as to the possibilities which might arise. And so to have promptness of decision accompanied by accuracy, there must be forethought and premeditation.

And yet I must recognize the fact that we always have the extremes. Every important law of life is a contradiction—a paradox. It always requires the possession of two conflicting processes. And so it is here. At the one extreme is the man who does not reflect in advance. He seizes upon the first plan which comes into his mind, forms a definite, fixed, unchangeable resolution, and proceeds immediately to action—and to vigorous action at that. His decisions are made quickly, and his action follows instantly. If the choice happens to be right, he “wins big.” If it happens to be wrong, he is “down and out.” Here we have promptness of decision. But it lacks in accuracy and reliability.

At the other extreme is the man who reflects long and often, who takes everything into consideration, who goes over the whole field—not once but many times ; who pictures every possibility, every contingency, and every danger arising from each course. He considers not simply one plan but many plans. But the trouble is that he has taken so many things into consideration, has pictured so many different plans, and sees so many different ways by which it could be done, that he cannot decide upon any. The difference between them is so slight that he has no preference. And without a preference there cannot be a choice. But the great executive character has the will to make a choice when no preference exists. And so he is a combination of the powers and capacities of both—with the defects of neither.

Promptness of decision was one of the great elements in the success of Abraham Lincoln. He displayed but little doubt and hesitation. When the time came to make a decision he decided, and decided promptly, clearly, and conclusively. And so there must usually be promptness and decisiveness in the forming of a plan as well as in its execution.

The seventh, and last, trait of a developed power of choosing to be here mentioned, is that the choice, or plan, when made, must be immovable. The choice must become a permanent part of the nervous system, a fixed structure of the brain. The choice, the plan, the resolution, must be fixed, firm, substantial—immovable.

The decision, when made, must be formed of such firmness of mental fiber that it will not dissolve into fragments and shreds when nervous energy is poured into it. It must be able to withstand the conflicts of contending emotions and weather the storms of passion intact.

Some people’s plans, decisions, and resolutions are but little more than “dissolving views.” And yet it is only when a determination has solidified and crystallized into a conviction that it can be made the foundation, for great achievements.

Few writers in discussing will-power and executive ability, make any reference to the intellectual element. They attribute entirely too much to strength of volition, pure and simple, and too little to the Intellect. And yet there cannot be great executive ability without the possession of a great Intellect. Intellect is at the foundation of choice, and choice is at the foundation of Will.

It is true that many of our greatest executive characters, that many of our greatest military generals and industrial captains were not men of high education—and often had scarcely any education at all. And this is particularly true of our industrial captains. But this is not saying that they were not men of high intelligence, for they were—and are. Intellect is one thing. Education is quite another. There cannot be great executive ability without power of organization. And there cannot be great capacity for organization without a high order of intelligence.

Persistence of purpose, doggedness of determination, unconquerableness of will and resolution—all these are of little avail if the choice is erroneous, if the decision is a blunder. Writers on successful men will tell you of their will-power, of their self-denial, of their unconquerable purpose, of their untiring persistence. Yet these elements alone never made a successful man, though no man could well make a great success without them. Thousands of men have failed who had all these virtues. These qualities avail but little if the man is following some delusion, some “pipe dream,” some phantom of the brain, some unrealizable and impossible enterprise. In fact they are positive disadvantages when guided wrong by the Intellect, because they prevent their stubborn and persistent possessor from seeing things as they are.

Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” is a case in point. Their heroic fighting, their stubborn persistence, their undying courage but accomplished their own defeat.

Great men and successful men and leaders of men had something besides will-power and dogged determination. What was it? Intellect. In making the choice they had the wisdom and the mental vision to choose the right thing, take the right plan, to select the right course instead of the wrong. They not only had the power of choosing, but of choosing right. They had the imagination which enabled them to foresee ultimate results. They saw the end from the beginning. And so true was their vision, so sound was their judgment, so exact was their inference, that what they saw only with the eyes of the imagination they afterwards saw with the eyes of the senses.

No combination of Will and pluck can long preserve ice at a temperature above 32 degrees. Will has never yet been able to abolish the laws of nature, nor to rise above them. No persistence of effort has ever been able to achieve the impossible. Only by the toil and persistence of years have men been able to bring forth great inventions. But other men have given the same toil and persistence and brought forth practically nothing. Why? Not because they lacked power of Will but power of Invention. Scores of men have given their lives in the vain endeavor to invent “perpetual motion." And so it requires greatness of Intellect as well as of Will for great and lasting achievements.

Napoleon Bonaparte was the greatest and most completely-developed executive character the human race has produced. His power of Will, his unconquerable resolution, his pluck and audacity have become a part of history. But the one thing which made Napoleon possible—and without which he could not have been as history knows him—was Intellect. He had a giant mind as well as a giant Will. He could see beyond the utmost vision of his associates. His imperial power was made possible by a peerless combination of Intellect and Will. His decisions were almost unerring, even though made with lightning-like rapidity amidst the stir and confusion of battle. And so there cannot be greatness of executive ability without greatness of Intellect.

There is also an emotional element that is indispensable in order to form prompt and final decisions —and still keep the mind free from anxiety and regret—and that is the element of Courage. Indecision, confusion, and perplexity may have two general causes: deficient intelligence and deficient courage. I have already spoken of the one and must now briefly allude to the other.

Anxiety rests upon fear. And fear is the opposite of courage. Granted sufficient courage and fear is impossible. That much is axiomatic. And when you have banished fear from the mind—if you only could—you have banished a whole family of foes to success and happiness. It requires courage—heroic, unwavering courage—to stake everything on the casting of a die. It requires daring to chance all—even destiny itself—upon a decision. Nothing short of audacity can make it possible for us to promptly and decisively stake all upon a choice, a choice which may make or mar all that we hold dear in life.

And so one of the foundation stones of great executive ability is courage—daring, pluck, fearlessness, audacity, and a sort of dare-devil indifference as to what the outcome will be. I find in reference to great men that they tend to be careful and anxious in the laying of their plans, but fearlesssly and boldly indifferent as to the outcome of their execution.

Every great ruler and leader must be something of a fatalist. Life must have much of abandon and of wreckless indifference to be really worth the living. Fortunate is the man who has the right combination of caution and daring, of fear and fatalism, of prudence and indifference. He who can stake all—and lose all—and still be happy, has perhaps the only thing really worth having. The real joys of life can be gained only by courageously maintaining a state of mind that is exuberant, exultant, triumphant—victorious.

MANY a profit making organization is losing thousands of dollars, if you figure up the difference between what it is doing and what it might do.