The First Law of Business

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You know you’ve made it when a theorem or scientific law gets named after you…Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Pareto Principle, the Doppler Effect, etc. So how great must it have been to be Sir Isaac Newton? Not only did the 17th century mathematician create Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation but he is also credited with not one, not two, but three laws of motion, including the Newton’s famous Third Law: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

So now, to create my own small legacy, I humbly introduce Dupree’s First Law of Business: “For every business rule there is an equal and opposite business rule”.

Seriously.

Virtually every business cliché has some countervailing platitude. For every coffee mug that says A Satisfied Customer is Our #1 Goal, there is a break room poster shouting A Happy Employee is Our Top Priority. So which is it? For every pep talk on Pivoting there is another one on Staying the Course. Think Strategically says one book, It’s All in the Detail says another.  Lead, no, Serve, scream LinkedIn memes. It’s confounding. Delegate but control, scale but customize, grow quickly but build profit, move at Internet speed but don’t act too quickly.

The consequences of the First Law of Business are so befuddling, in fact, that they demand a separate proposition devoted to what it means for good management, Dupree’s Second Law: “In the absence of reliable business absolutes, the single most important professional attribute is sound judgement”.

Individuals who can evaluate competing inputs and render good, thoughtful, business decisions are simply the best colleagues. This expresses itself most powerfully when those inputs conflict or when competing options seem equally desirable. It is vital when the information is unclear or when the decision is not between good and evil but between the greater of two goods or the lesser of two (or more) evils. It is brought to bear as often in deciding on inaction as it is action. It may not be the showiest of management qualities but it is the most potent. Workers with sound judgement are like athletes who may rarely make the individual highlight reels but somehow always seem associated with championship teams.

They are not swayed by passion or the buzzwords of the day. But with the information at hand, however imperfect, they consistently make reasonable choices based on the whole picture, not merely their direct self-interest. They constantly groom their business judgement through their own experience, good and bad, as well as their keen observation of colleagues.

Of course, the First Law tends to overstate things. Customer attention is not exactly the opposite of employee focus, nor is growth inconsistent with profitability. But commercial life routinely presents business people genuine discordance in priorities which they must learn to synthesize as best as circumstances allow. It takes double helpings of both energy and brains.

Almost 80 years ago F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Today, after two world wars, multiple global financial crises, the creation of the Internet, the information age, and postmodernism, it still comes down to that.

Keep your charismatic showmen; your showy iconoclasts, your radical innovators. Give me the team of men and women who can thrive in uncertainty and still lead with sound judgement day in and day out.

5 thoughts on “The First Law of Business

  1. Great insights John, thank you. A thought that immediately comes to mind is the speed of judgments. The discipline of considering things, even with no new information, just letting it all sink in. Something I think you have written about before.

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