New Centuries, Mighty Dreams

"Jefferson believed in…an 'Empire of Liberty'…an empire without colonies…[T]he greatest…builder of all, his mind encompassed the continent. From the beginning…he thought…of…a nation stretching from sea to sea…land enough to sustain the American dream for centuries…a new era…In 1801… with a golden age in view…he set himself to (making) it happen…"
- Stephen E. Ambrose
From Undaunted Courage

"We stand on the threshold of a new century big with the fate of mighty nations. It rests with us now to decide…whether we shall march forward…(or) shrink from the work of the great world powers…The young giant…stands on a continent and clasps an ocean in either hand…looking to the future…as a strong man to run a race…"
- Theodore Roosevelt
Summer 1900


The year 2000 is here. While the opening of any new century provides a platform for inspired leadership - the last two are examples - the one upon us is more special. This time it isn't just the "hundreds" digit clicking up a notch.

Jefferson dreamt of a spirited infant, with a unique destiny to venture beyond natural barriers and philosophical norms to become something the world of his time had never contemplated. One century later a young vice presidential candidate foretold that this destiny no longer could be fulfilled without advancing into the international arena.


Another century has passed. Theodore Roosevelt's world has become a global arena where grade school children surf the net; and business, economic, political, social and technological forces interact and overlap in real time. If there was ever a moment for corporate leaders to look to the future and dream mighty dreams in a climate of anticipation, this is it.

As if trying to beat the clock, CEO's are pursuing their dreams in rapidly changing industries where time won't wait.
  • Calling the opportunity "a dream come true," a Swiss businessman harkens to his boyhood and buys Encyclopedia Britannica, unleashing a strategy to vault the struggling institution into the digital age. The risky move appears driven in part by a "quest to preserve…a cultural treasure" more than two centuries old.
  • In what Business Week calls "the climax of a rags-to-riches…tale," Sandy Weill purchases Salomon Inc. for Travelers Group, thus creating "one of the…major players in global investment banking over the next 25 years." For Weill it is the latest advance in a decades-old dream to build "an American institution."
  • Believing in "an idealistic dream that our company could be far more than the (old) paradigm…" Howard Schultz chronicles the ten-year transformation of Starbucks Coffee from a six-store local business to an international team of over 25,000 employees. He credits a simple value system based on integrity, passion, and respect.
  • From an idea hatched in a coffee shop, upstart WorldCom seeks to become a "new-era" telecom powerhouse with an attempt to purchase MCI. Already loaded with fiberoptic capability and Internet service providers, Bernard Ebbers acts upon the dream to create the first truly seamless digital network.


Communicating direction and strategy to employees is a task critical to successful implementation. Yet it is a task often underestimated in its difficulty. The approaching new century can make the task easier because of the opportunity to use catchy phrases easy to remember.


Quasar International pioneered a new segment of the satellite communications industry. The founders built critical mass fast, capturing the #1 share position with a strategy emphasizing market development, aggressive sales, state-of-the art customized information systems, and assembly of a world class technical organization able to deliver mistake-free execution to a demanding global customer base.

But the founders could sense their dream was in jeopardy. The cost of digital changeover and the increasing threat of suppliers integrating forward required a new vision, one that included a strategic alliance. Trumpeting the theme "Two Hundred by Two" ($200 million by the year 2002), management won the support of employees and investors for the new direction.


Parlaying a sixth sense for anticipating market opportunity, site selection and creative finance, and an obsession for attractive facilities and employee training, Virginia Merchandising was an established player in an intensely competitive wholesale and retail arena.

But as the partners in this closely-held first generation company were passing 50, they dreamed anew of a legacy, of passing on something special. Hence "Vision 2005" and its more focused and accelerated strategy--reallocating capital to pounce on an opportunity to acquire retail share, recruiting a talented and hungry successor management team, and restructuring incentives for key employees. The transformation from "old established" to "new dominant" was underway.


The classic "garage shop" start-up, two scientists had quit their jobs when the big company was blind to their dream to bring to market revolutionary technology for synthesizing specialty organic compounds used in environmental clean-up.

At first it seemed easy. Excited customers, international expansion, dominant worldwide share, investment bankers--all leading to a successful second-round financing. But after a time, things stalled. Market boundaries were shifting. Avoiding stagnation demanded that Organic recast its dream.

Under "Odyssey 2001" a revised mission statement became less confining. Organic repositioned itself in growth markets and licensing agreements brought new ideas from outside Organic's labs. Marketing and product development activities were molded into project teams, and employees were empowered to make decisions as never before. Spirits soared as the $100 million barrier again seemed surmountable on the way to an IPO.


"Mighty dreams" are not enough. Tough, timely decisions and skillful execution are equally important. Each vignette company followed a similar prescription--careful selection of people matched to the tasks; stretched goals not watered down at the first sign of difficulty; turning the organization upside down if that's what it took; adequate training and resources; and everyone working 100% toward common objectives.

It is a great time for visionary and demanding leadership. Employees are ready. In fact, they expect it.

The three vignettes are fictionalized adaptations of real situations.


Ambrose, Stephen E. 1996. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. New York. Simon & Schuster.

Elstrom, Peter. October 13, 1997. The New World Order. Business Week. 26-34.

Lipin, Steven and Keller, John J.. October 2, 1997. Worldcom's MCI Bid Alters Playing Field For Telecom Industry. The Wall Street Journal. A2 - A12.

McGeehan, Patrick. September 25, 1997. Weill Embraces Risk With Salomon Pact-But Heads Will Roll. The Wall Street Journal. A1 - A6.

Melcher, Richard A. October 20, 1997. Dusting Off The Britannica. Business Week. 143-146.

Morris, Edmund. 1979. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.

Schultz, Howard and Yang, Dori Jones. September 29, 1997. Starbucks: Making Values Pay. Fortune. 261-272.

Weiss, Gary, with Phillip Zweig, Debra Sparks, and Kerry Capell and Lea Nathans Spiro. October 6, 1997. Business Week. Travelers joins Wall Street's elite with the marriage of Solly and Smith Barney.

Orchids & Steam Shovels Part II

Orchids & Steam Shovels Part I


At the Speed of Light

On Einstein, Newton and Satchel Paige

New Centuries, Mighty Dreams

Exceptions and Expectations

The Morning After

New Paths...
Worn Paths

Old Values in a
New Era

Procrastination and Consequences
Part I

Procrastination and Consequences
Part II

All in the Family
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