The Time in Strategy

An executive wanted my service as a coach on strategy and leadership. “Any historical examples come to mind on strategic leadership?” asked the executive. “Sure do,” I replied, and off we went down the “River” of Martin Luther King’s leadership during the march on Birmingham, Alabama in the first half of 1963.

Our first surprising bend in the River pertained to time. Not time management. Simply, time, especially in the form of a few grains of sand slipping through the hourglass. 

As a leader, King in early 1963 helped his core team of followers cope with a public setback at a failed protest effort in Albany, Georgia. After the embarrassing public defeat, King convened a retreat at Dorchester, Georgia, where for three days he and his core team debated over what to do next. The result was an improved plan of protest (called “Project C”). The group determined that Birmingham would be the next target for a major protest, for the execution of the revamped and revised Project C.

Disputes over local city elections in Birmingham caused a delay in the roll-out of protest and Project C. And now a significant problem emerged. Many of King’s immediate followers—the people who were leaders in their own right—began to worry about the immediate launch of Project C in Birmingham. Maybe we should hold off for a while, they wondered. Moreover, as spiritual leaders, Christian ministers prominent among them, they also considered that perhaps God had given them a chance to ponder the chance of self-inflicted impulsiveness and willfulness. The delay opened a door for arguably legitimate reflection and reconsideration. The same door, however, ushered in nervousness, anxiety, and gnawing doubts. The sudden availability of time (in the form of an externally-forced delay) started to undercut the cohesion of the accepted strategic plan.

Here is the instance when King revealed the importance of time in strategic leadership. In early April King interceded among his core team and rejected the option of further delay of the Birmingham march. He urged them forward into the execution of Project C. While he shared their worries, King took a deep breath and shoved the improved plan from words and paper to actions and streets. King defined NOW and the PRESENT as the most valuable forms of time. For King, time for refinement had stopped. The time for action had come. No more delays, no more deliberation. Do first. Everything else comes afterward, comes next, comes later. The protest march would commence.

It is accurate to say that strategic leadership is visioning, high-level planning, and big, bigger, biggest pictures. But in early April 1963, Martin Luther King also revealed that strategic leadership is about that small slice of time known as launch, start, and the first true step. The strategic leader must often be the one, indeed the only one, who seizes time and declares “now we begin!”