Winchester and the follies of Leadership


A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

– Lao Tzu , Chinese philosopher, 6th century BC

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The quiz master asks, “Where did the famous Winchester rifles originate from?”

“Winchester of course!” I quip back.

The Quizmaster gives me a quizzical look.

 ***

 As I land at London Heathrow and take the coach to Winchester, I recall the above incident. Traveling through the beautiful English countryside of Hampshire, I reach the town.

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The coach stops in the city centre with the statue of King Alfred the Great visible in the distance. Winchester’s claim to fame began during the Roman times and indeed became a Roman province with defensive walls all around. But it was during the Anglo- Saxon times that it reached its zenith and the cross shaped Saxon street plan as laid out by King Alfred can be seen even today.

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I was there to meet up with Stanley, the owner of a Management Consulting company. As I stepped into his office, Stan introduced me to Nick, his protégé and the current CEO of the firm. We got down to discussing a joint venture proposal in the UK for which I had sought the services of Stanley’s company. But the discussions never could take off. Every time I would seek advice and Nick would start off on possible options, I found Stan interrupting him.

“That surely could be one of the ways to proceed,” he would say, “but it might work better if you….” and then he would veer off into a rambling story off how it had worked for him many years back in a different context. As Nick, after a while, tried to get back to what he had been saying, he would be interrupted almost immediately by Stan who would again take the discussion into yet another of his personal success stories.

As the outsider, I seemed to be stranded in the middle. As the discussions flowed more around than with me, I quickly realised that we were not going anywhere with our main agenda.

As I walked away from failed negotiations on the JV, scarcely noticing the old medieval city walls, I pondered. Why do Business leaders like Stan have this intrinsic need to win, even against their own? Is it a deep down insecurity about one’s insufficiency to handle a world and environment that has changed? Could such insufficiency be making Stan avoid the right focus and seek refuge and comfort of past glories? Does Stan realise that such frequent “peeping over the shoulder” approach, though well meaning, could in fact be fast reducing Nick’s commitment to the organisation?

 ***

 And so I come back to the question of where the Winchester rifles come from.

Well, the rifles had their origin across the Atlantic when, just before the American civil war, a certain Oliver Winchester had the vision to buy out a bankrupt gun company in New Haven, Connecticut. The repeater rifle he redesigned was a huge success with the Union army and, after the war, the company became renamed as “The Winchester Repeating Arms Company.” So path breaking and visionary was the design that it earned the nickname of “The Gun that won the West.” For almost a century thereafter, the Winchester name remained synonymous with vision and success. It was in the 1960s that the company chose to forget what had made it successful in the first place, refused to embrace technology changes and in fact did faulty redesigning of its firearms. It was downhill thereafter till the company was split up and sold off in 1980.

As I muse over the Rise and Fall of Winchester Guns, I see its parallel in the mindset of Business leaders like Stan. As they build a company through vision and change, somewhere along that long and arduous road, such leaders choose to get stuck to their own perceived ‘success recipe’. This attachment veers them away from all that which made them successful in the past. An attachment which leads to a refusal to acknowledge a changing future and the possibilities it brings. A refusal which pushes business away, as it did my proposal.

In Learning…………………….                                                Shakti Ghosal