Man climbing mountain

Take the high ground or it takes you

Dan Fine, Practice Development

By Dan Fine, Business Adviser at Hive Business

Ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink has a saying that comes up in his podcasts and books (all of which I recommend): “take the high ground, or the high ground will take you”. On the battlefield your aim is to take territory with the best field of fire, so your position is the easiest to defend against the enemy as they try to advance up the hill. If you don’t take the high ground your enemy inevitably will.

Willink goes on to explain that its relevance does not stop there; it’s a concept with utility in all facets of competition, business, even life. Taking the high ground is always the harder option initially, but if you don’t it comes back to get you — and unlike karma it’s not action but inaction that seals your fate.

In a post about the mirage of effortless success  I wrote that success is not an entitlement people are born with but something they earn by dedicating more time, thought, energy and effort than others to whatever mission they are on.

That seems to align with Willink’s concept of high ground in that if you don’t put in the work you can’t win the battle. But the more insidious point has to be that you might never know the cost of taking the easy path. You could attribute your lack of success to external factors and never reflect on your own shortfalls, yet in reality these are all you control.

As a common example, I see this happen in communication. Email is an amazing tool for communication, but we’ve all had moments where we’ve sent emails that were way over the top, perhaps in response to some apparent insult. The weird thing isn’t that this is easy but that it feels good, making the low ground, at times, look tempting.

If the costs for firing off a stupid email remain unseen, they are still paid. Think about the last time someone sent you a passive aggressive screed. How likely are you to go the extra mile for them now? They probably feel like they have won the battle but they have permanently sabotaged their chances of winning the war.

As with many of Willink’s mantras (including “discipline equals freedom” and “no bad teams, only bad leaders”) the put-the-work-in-to-get-the-high-ground applications are endless, so I will give just one more example. It comes up a lot in his first book Extreme Ownership. I’ve seen it happen a few times: I’m sat in a board meeting with clients, running through reports, and it becomes clear someone has messed up.

Good leaders put their hand up and own it, but occasionally there’s nothing, or someone begins to blame someone else. Everyone in the room knows who is responsible and needs them to own it for closure, to move on and fix things. Very few people are intolerant of mistakes per se — we all make them — it’s what you do after you’ve made them that counts. So why not own up?

It could be cowardice. Or genuine unawareness (although that’s difficult to buy from someone who has just listened to their own board describe what they have done). Most people are sensitive and intelligent enough to have an exquisite sense of when they have contributed to a disaster. After all, we are social creatures with an inbuilt status tracker and a corresponding sense of guilt. When we violate our own moral code our guilt spurs us to action to avert the impending social cost.

Yet sometimes people don’t take action, and it’s seldom because, at heart, they really don’t care. They might be lying to themselves and believing it because, deep down, they know it does matter, or perhaps they meant to own up but chickened out and now it’s too late. Both very human.

Yet the reasons don’t matter in the slightest, what does is that all the other board members have taken a conscious and subconscious mental note that this person is either dishonest, morally weak, or incompetent. Any way you cut it, this is a huge unseen cost. Not something you ever want to do, when you really think about it. When reflecting on your daily interactions, therefore, try asking yourself “am I taking the high ground, or is the high ground taking me?”

If your dental practice is struggling with accountability or you’re just in need of  some advice on how to better manage your staff, please get in touch on 01872 300 232 or email [email protected].

Share this Post