When Going Backwards is a Good Idea By Alec Hill
In Praise of Strategic Retreats
Shortly after the American Revolutionary War began, General George Washington faced a dilemma of epic proportions. He had to decide whether his 10,000 troops should stand and fight 32,000 British soldiers in New York City.
If he left the battlefield, he might be viewed as a weak leader. The Continental Congress might replace him. And the French government, whose alliance he hoped to gain, might step away.
Most of us think of Washington as a leader who never gave an inch. But in reality, he engaged in multiple strategic retreats. In New York, under the cloak of darkness and fog, he ordered his troops to flee so that they might live to fight another day.
What About Us?
Washington knew how to take a short-term defeat in order to gain long-term victory.
But most senior leaders I know – including me – hate any sense of failure. Too often, we hesitate to take any steps backward. How can we possibly retreat when everything about our mission has only has one gear – forward?
But, as the Covid-era has reminded us, forward is not always possible. Disruption and regression are constant reminders of how little we really control. And, with a possible recession knocking at the door, how should we handle the next round of adversity?
Far too frequently, we focus solely on the crisis at hand. In order to maintain organizational equilibrium, we are tempted to appease staff, quiet bad publicity, and be only partially candid with donors. But this approach is fraught with peril.
Rather, like George Washington, we need to lift our eyes to a higher goal. Sometimes short-term pain – such as cutting programs, selling property, and laying off staff – is necessary to ensure long-term health. Rather than delaying hard decisions, it is better to make them in a timely and clear manner.
A Case Study
During the Great Recession of 2009, the publishing industry was in a freefall. Book publishers were either slashing budgets or being swallowed via acquisition.
Despite its strong reputation, InterVarsity Press (IVP) was (and is) is a rather modest enterprise (100+ books per year). Bob Fryling, our publisher at the time, and I had many long discussions about how to ensure the flourishing of IVP’s mission over the long haul.
The economic crisis forced us to articulate more clearly what was truly “core.” Our strategic retreat involved shrinking our footprint, including a painful staff reduction. The journey was not easy.
But 14 years later, IVP has doubled in size and is thriving as never before. While other factors (such as a rising economy) certainly played a major role in IVP’s ascent, our difficult decisions created a solid foundation on which to build.
Leaders of Strategic Retreats are Rarely Praised
Have you ever heard of Bertram Ramsay? Neither had I before writing this essay. He was the British leader who orchestrated the evacuation of 338,000 allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France during World War II.
Ramsay and his team devised a multi-pronged plan to rescue troops trapped between the German Army and the English Channel. As the Royal Air Force held the Luftwaffe at bay, Ramsay’s team cobbled together a fleet of nearly a thousand navy ships, commercial vessels, ferries, fishing boats, and yachts.
Like Ramsay, leaders who execute strategic retreats rarely receive credit. Praise is generally reserved for those who expand the mission. But without making painful decisions in the present, future advancement (or even survival) may not be possible.
I have a friend who served as a senior leader in Christian higher education. When forced with declining enrollments and rising costs, he made a series of difficult choices to ensure the long-term health of his institution and set it on a trajectory for future growth. Did he receive honor or thanks for his hard work? Not really.
Conducting a strategic retreat is one of the most difficult things that a leader can ever do. It tests our character like little else. But, as we learn from George Washington, acting with wisdom and courage in challenging situations is exactly what our ministries need.
Alec Hill is president emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is also the author of, Living in Bonus Time: Surviving Cancer, Finding New Purpose.
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